“Bourbonism” — that’s the term Mayor Greg Fischer has coined for the recent surge of bourbon tourism in Louisville, Kentucky. Eager to capture the growing number of bourbon pilgrims, distilleries old and new are pouring dollars into production facilities, interactive displays, and visitor centers. Two projects have opened in the past two years, and at least five more are planned or under construction.
Louisville hasn’t seen this much bourbon activity since the turn of the 20th Century, when the River City’s Whiskey Row, along Main and Market streets, was the shipping hub for nearly 100 distillers from all over the region. Following Prohibition and the shift from river transport to trucking, Whiskey Row slipped into oblivion. Bourbon was (and is) still produced in the metro area, but you had to travel out into the state to take a distillery tour and see the spirit being made.
Today, Louisville is reclaiming its place in the state’s bourbon history. Any doubt of that was dispelled in late April, when the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced that a new bourbon-oriented visitor experience planned at the Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., will serve as the official starting point for its wildly popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour experiences, which saw a combined 725,000 visitors last year.
The new Frazier bourbon experience, part of a $1.4 million expansion, will feature exhibits, interactive displays, and learning events about the history and culture of one of the signature industries of Kentucky, which produces 95 percent of the world’s supply. It is scheduled to open in two years. Until then, you can visit a smaller bourbon history exhibit that includes the actual 1964 Congressional resolution that declared bourbon to be “America’s native spirit.”
Just a few blocks down the street, at 528 W. Main St., is an attraction that will make you thirsty at first glimpse: the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, where a five-story Evan Williams bottle pours “bourbon” into a giant rocks glass in the lobby. The interactive bourbon attraction celebrates Kentucky’s first commercial distiller and the namesake of Heaven Hill’s flagship brand. You can walk through a recreation of his distillery, which was once located directly across the street, then see the attraction’s working still, which can produce one barrel per day. Since the Evan Williams Experience opened in November 2013, Artisanal Distiller Charlie Downs has filled 326 barrels. Your tour includes a premium tasting in one of two period bars (19th Century or 1960s), and in the gift shop, you’ll find bourbons available nowhere else.
About five miles south of Main Street, the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller has reclaimed one of bourbon’s most revered locations, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, opened in 1935. After your tour, you can sample small-batch Bulleit Brands.
Other attractions pouring into Louisville in the coming months are the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Fourth Street Live (fall 2015), Angel’s Envy Distillery, Main Street (early 2016), Old Forester Distillery, Main Street (fall 2016), Michter’s Distillery and Tour, Main Street (date TBA).