The days of terrible music festival food are long behind us. Today’s festivals cater to the food-loving crowd — Chicago’s celebrated chef Graham Elliot curates Lollapalooza, and California’s Coachella even hosts a four-course meal courtesy of Outstanding In the Field. So it should come as no surprise that last month’s Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, did not disappoint when it came to culinary offerings.
The music festival, held outdoors at Louisville’s expansive Waterfront Park, provided attendees with a feast for all the senses. Guests could find local merchants shilling their goods, artists creating a mural filled with portraits of festival-goers available for purchase, and a variety of tasty food vendors too.
Fans of typical festival fare shouldn’t despair — you can still get your fried food fix. Wooden booths around the park sold your expected pizza (including one slice called the “David Bowie”), burgers, and my personal favorite, deep-fried Oreos. But I was also surprised to see a true emphasis on local food too. Guests also could enjoy Cajun-fried alligator tails and Louisville’s signature dish: the Hot Brown, an open-faced broiled turkey sandwich topped with cheese, tomatoes, and bacon. Yes, this is heavy, delicious, and as nap-inducing as it the description sounds, but it’s worth it. It’s also a must-try if you’re ever in Louisville.
I was also impressed by how fresh everything was. Before heading off to catch the tail end of Sun Kil Moon’s set, I enjoyed a chocolate and peanut butter smoothie that was easily one of the best ones I’ve ever had. The man working behind the counter used real bananas, peanut butter, and Hershey’s chocolate sauce — none of that powdered stuff here. He even topped me and another customer off once he finished blending everything together — a small, personal touch that went a long way. Before Jack White’s mind-blowing set on the second night of the festival, I chatted with two other women who told me they enjoyed one of the best cheeseburgers ever at last year’s fest. And I believe it.
Food Trucks Galore
Since food trucks have become so popular, it’s easier than ever before for trucks to park and serve up their signature goods. Popular options included the Holy Mole Taco Truck, which almost always had a line when I walked by, Pie for the People pizza, Lil Cheezers, and Longshot Lobsta. I fell in love with the tacos from Holy Mole. The Kentucky-style barbecue offering — a spicy and tangy concoction — tasted beyond fresh and was the just the light festival fare I was searching for.
My caprese sandwich from Lil Cheezer was grilled on soft, lightly toasted bread and also came complete with straight-from-the-garden fresh ingredients. Airstream trailers also surrounded the multiple outdoor stages. Local coffee chain Heine Brothers was serving java, my favorite festival beverage — besides the alcohol, of course. The days of terrible music festival food are long behind us. Tito’s Handmade Vodka was pouring its signature drink and even created a sweet Mrs. Jackson — a mix of vodka, blueberry and lemonade — in honor of the first night’s headliner, Outkast. Additional drink offerings included a Kentucky craft beer bar and even a Kentucky wine booth for those that prefer sweeter alcohol options.
The Bourbon Lodge’s “Fourth Headliner”
But the true star of Forecastle’s culinary offerings was the festival’s impressive Bourbon Lodge. For an extra fee, festivalgoers could enter a spacious air-conditioned tent that was decorated with strands of white lights hanging from the ceiling.
When I first stepped inside, it reminded me of a something you’d see at a wedding reception — it was that elegant. Various bourbon vendors, including Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Town Brand, Woodward Reserve, Knob Creek, and Heaven Hill, each had (usually wooden) counters where employees poured out their brands’ signature bourbons. Forecastle attendees could either drink it neat or take it to the center of the tent where they could have the bourbon mixed into a drink. Options included an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Kentucky Mule, and a Mint Julep.
Adam Johnson, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, said the Bourbon Lodge is intended to raise awareness of Kentucky’s important role as the producer of 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.
“When people are in Kentucky, we want you to taste the best of our bourbon,” says Johnson. We also want to “get people, hopefully while they’re here at Forecastle, out to the distilleries and see where the bourbon’s made. That’s why we’re involved. I want you to visit Evan Williams, which is three blocks walk from here. I want to you to see where the stuff you’re drinking is made.”
But even if you didn’t make it to a distillery, there was plenty to learn in the lodge. For newbies, the mixed-drink bar made the drink a little more accessible, especially for those who don’t take their whiskey neat. Johnson recommend either staring with a flight to sample a variety of bourbons or trying different mixed drinks with various spirits to see how the bourbon influences the cocktail.
But the lodge served up more than just drinks; it also hosted free “fireside chats” where guests could learn more about bourbon. Sessions included cooking with bourbon, why Kentucky is the ideal place to make bourbon, a master distillers meet-and-greet, and even a celebrity bartending session where members of the band Spoon handed out drinks.
“No matter where you’re from, you can learn a little bit more about bourbon,” says Johnson. “It’s not just the experts. It’s people who don’t know as much. We want them to come in and learn from the distilleries. All that stuff you see on the shelf, these guys made it.”
“The bourbon lodge is called the fourth headliner,” says Holly Weyler, Forecastle’s media manager and a Louisville native. “And it’s also a showcase of Kentucky’s cultural heritage.”
For festival-attendees who didn’t venture into the lodge, the Gonzo Bar also served bourbon-based drinks. The bar augmented the festival’s homage to writer Hunter. S Thompson — there was even a large puppet resembling the famed author that made an appearance throughout the weekend.
And from an entire lodge dedicated to spotlighting bourbon to a jalapeño corndog stand “proudly serving products from Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kentucky,” Kentucky pride was on display throughout the entire music festival. I loved sampling fresh, local cuisine and even tried an Old Fashioned for the very first time here. Despite the 80,000-plus people in attendance, Forecastle really felt like a local event. And I couldn’t have been more pleased with the Kentucky pride, great music, and local food on display.
Teresa Tobat is a writer and editor based out of the Washington, D.C. area. View her website at teresaktobat.com. Follow her tweets @ttobat88.
Photography by Audrey Harrod.