By Simon Meiners
LOUISVILLE, Ky. On August 30 a much-awaited exhibition about bourbon whiskey opened in Louisville.
The Spirit of Kentucky, a new exhibit at the Frazier History Museum in the West Main District of downtown Louisville, explores the history, craft and culture of Kentucky bourbon.
The exhibit, which occupies a 10,000 square-foot wing on the third floor of the museum, divides into three themed rooms: “Enchanted” looks at how the geography and geology of Kentucky promote bourbon-making; “Gracious” celebrates the camaraderie of bourbon makers and “Refined” examines the culture of bourbon consumers and collectors.
Visitors enter the exhibit through a covered bridge, pass through the three main chambers and then exit through the Bottle Hall, a space that houses a growing collection of bottles. The Bottle Hall will ultimately include every brand of bourbon currently being produced in the state of Kentucky.
A secret door hidden somewhere in the exhibit leads to a speakeasy where visitors can play checkers and listen to jazz. Of course, they’ve got to find the entrance first.
“We wanted this exhibit to be an immersive experience for visitors,” said chief curator Brigid Witzke. “That’s why each room has its own distinct character.”
Artifacts in the “Enchanted” area pertain to the natural elements involved in the production of bourbon: water, limestone, grains and wood.
In the “Water” section visitors can spin a paddle wheel to reveal bits of trivia about the history of riverboat travel and commerce. At the cooperage table in the “Wood” section visitors can put on a leather apron and “raise” a barrel using prop oak staves and steel hoops.
Antique farm tools and weather-tracking instruments in “Grains and Crops” are used to illustrate the evolving technologies of agribusiness. A photo album of family farmers shows some of the folks who use those tools and equipment to cultivate the corn and other grains (rye, malted barley, wheat) used to make whiskey.
“Family and friendship have always been at the heart of the Kentucky bourbon industry,” said Witzke. “That’s what inspired the “Gracious” space, which is modeled after a family dining room.”
At a touch-screen table in the “Gracious” room visitors can browse hundreds of entries that make up a vast digital library of bourbon-related content. Entries include text captions and visual content, including ads and postcards, fire insurance maps of old distilleries and clips of interviews with distillery employees.
The last room, “Refined,” is stocked with vintage whiskeys and lined with black curtains. “Visitors may notice that the exhibit gets darker as it progresses,” said Witzke. “That’s a nod to the life of bourbon. Whiskey is clear when it goes into the barrel to age and amber when it comes out.”
The Spirit of Kentucky opened in tandem with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center, a facility located on the first floor of the museum. The KBT Welcome Center has been designated the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, a project launched in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) to promote bourbon tourism in the state.
Both the welcome center and the exhibit will remain permanent features of the museum.
Simon Meiners is the public relations writer for the Frazier History Museum.