New Orleans Bourbon Festival: From Spectator to Speaker


I remember it like it was yesterday… almost 3 years ago…

Flying into New Orleans by myself with a small suitcase and a stack of business cards, determined to meet as many people as I could in the bourbon industry. I was so determined back then. Black Bourbon Society was only a couple of months old and I was desperate to make new contacts so I could continue to produce events for my growing audience in California. I don’t know what I was thinking. How could little old me – only 5’2 in stature – and a black woman at that, walk into a bourbon conference halfway across the country, not knowing a single soul, and have the audacity to think that I would not only leave knowing everybody in the room but fit into an industry I didn’t know much about in the first place?

But WOW.

The 2017 New Orleans Bourbon Festival was an amazing dive-in-head-first experience into the world of bourbon. I got a chance to meet Tracy Napolitano, the founder of the festival. He and his wife, Barbara, welcomed me from the very beginning. Not once did I feel out of place. The Grand Tasting was an amazing display of bourbons and delicious Creole and Cajun cuisine. I also sat in on some phenomenal educational seminars with all the bourbon elite – diehard bourbon enthusiasts, master distillers, national brand reps, and world-renowned historians – all names and faces I had only seen in publications and stalked on social media. I even remember sitting across from Michael Veach at the hotel restaurant. I was so starstruck, I was afraid to introduce myself to him! (He later called me out on it and ever since then, he’s become a great mentor of mine.) 

Last year’s festival was even better. It was flawlessly executed, and the Generations theme was an instant hit with attendees. I got a chance to sit in on a seminar given by Rob Samuels (Makers Mark), and thoroughly enjoyed the panel discussion featuring Fred and Freddie Noe – the 7th& 8th generation Beam Family members – sharing stories about legendary Booker Noe and Freddie’s latest project named in his honor, Little Book. By year two, I felt fully submerged into bourbon culture at the Festival. This time, I wasn’t scared to travel by myself and some of the attendees from the year prior remembered my name. This time around, I gave Michael Veach the biggest hug when I saw him check-in for the festival and I also met Steve Akley, our beloved ABV Network CEO, for the first time in real life. He was my bourbon bestie for the weekend despite disagreeing on a rum vs. bourbon seminar/tasting taught by Fred Minnick! I also stayed an extra day to get my Executive Bourbon Steward certification with the Stave & Thief Society. This time around, the knowledge I gained plus the connections and reconnections I made boosted my career tremendously.

So, fast forward to present day, 2019 – roughly 20 days away from the 3rd Annual New Orleans Bourbon Festival. I am eagerly anticipating another amazing experience with all my Bourbon Famous Buddies. But instead of being a spectator like prior years, I am now preparing to lead my own whiskey tasting seminar and sit on a panel discussion with Colonel Steve and the ABV Network Crew! Armond and I will be producing a session based off our podcast, Bonded in Bourbon, that will challenge conference attendees to rely solely on their senses to review various bourbons in a speed-dating format. We’re calling this session, The Blind Date.I am also collaborating with Peggy Noe Stevens and Bourbon Women to serve up cocktails and teach whiskey education in the Women’s Bourbon Lounge on Friday and Saturday afternoon! 

My personal experience speaks to the amazingness that the New Orleans Bourbon Festival is. In it’s now third year of production, it’s become an annual reunion for all the cool kids in the bourbon world. This is where you go to dive-in to this industry whether it’s learning from the experts themselves, becoming an expert, networking, making new bourbon friends, and to make a name for yourself. This above any whiskey festival I’ve ever been to is by the far the place to experience all that this industry has to offer. I am forever grateful to the New Orleans Bourbon Festival for welcoming me into an industry I wasn’t quite sure I’d fit into. As I prepare for my third trip back to New Orleans, and reflect back on all the memories, I am humbled by the thought that I went from walking into a room where no one knew who I was, to now having my name on the schedule! 

If you haven’t gotten your ticket or booked your accommodations, do it today! The New Orleans Bourbon Festival is March 20-23 at the New Orleans Riverside Hilton and the Contemporary Arts Center. You can find out more about the New Orleans Bourbon Festival at:

Samara RiversComment