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Bourbon: The Rise of the Bourbon Culture

The growing popularity of all things bourbon is creating a new hospitality infrastructure around Kentucky’s native spirit

By Kevin Gibson

Horse Soldier Bourbon is in the midst of building a sprawling $200 million distillery and tourist destination in Pulaski County on what once was a golf course. In Gethsemane, Log Still Distillery is developing a 300-acre distillery campus. Distillery restaurants and bars are sprouting all over the state.

At Bardstown Bourbon Co., you can order a pour from a curated collection of vintage bottles, then sit and sip it in a high-end bar or with a meal at its on-site restaurant—all before taking a class on making cocktails.

For the first time ever, tourists will be able spend the night at a Kentucky distillery. Or see a concert. Just 15 years ago, according to Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there were only seven distilleries open for tours. Now there are more than 50.

In other words, distilleries not only have evolved past being a place where spirits are made—they’re an integral part of Kentucky’s fabric. It’s nearly infrastructure.

“It is,” said Samantha Brady, executive director of Bardstown Tourism. “It’s Kentucky infrastructure.”

The 2022 Economic Impact Report recently released by the distillers’ association revealed that between now and 2025, another $3.3 billion in investments is planned or in the works, and Gregory feels that number is low as COVID-19 trepidation still curbs expectations. By comparison, over the previous five years, $1.9 billion in investments went into Kentucky distillers and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

And as Log Still and Horse Soldier make evident, these aren’t just investments in new stills and rickhouses—it’s what many have called the “Napa-fication” of Kentucky. Peripherally, it’s giving rise to more restaurants, more hotels, more Airbnbs, more bourbon bars, even more businesses of all types that lean into bourbon culture. Bourbon creates jobs in seemingly all aspects of Kentucky’s economy, from hospitality to construction.

It’s an industry that has been bursting at the seams to grow for two decades or more. Legislation has slowly but surely caught up with consumer demand, making allowances as simple as giving consumers the right to have a cocktail at a distillery. And the distilleries have responded.

H.B. 500, which is being debated in the Kentucky legislature, will potentially give distilleries the legal right to sell exclusive bottles on-site and allow satellite tasting rooms to open anywhere across the state. Going back to that phrase “Napa-fication,” those are both options available in California, designed to make tasting experiences more convenient and offer an even more exclusive experience. The distilleries get their brands deeper into the market and also increase sales.

The ultimate goal, according to Gregory, is to change a distillery visit from a one-time thing—a “bucket list experience,” as Gregory put it—to one that keeps calling people back. The strategy is working, even if just due to the jump from seven distilleries to 50 with on-site experiences along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The reach is truly statewide.

“You can’t just do it in a long weekend like you used to be able to,” Gregory said.

Here, there and everywhere
It wasn’t so long ago that when tourists arrived in Louisville to check out bourbon tourism, they’d be likely to hop on a tour bus and shipped out of town for the day. Now, Louisville has 10 bourbon attractions, many of them within walking distance of each other in the downtown district, according to Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications. When bourbon enthusiasts land in Louisville these days, they have plenty to do before they head to Bardstown. Not surprisingly, Louisville has adopted the term “Bourbon City.”

Downtown Louisville is home to Angel’s Envy Distillery, the Evan Williams Experience, Michter’s and Kentucky Peerless, among others. And more bourbon attractions are popping up. At Hillerich & Bradsby, where baseball bats are produced and tourists pour into the Louisville Slugger Museum, a bourbon attraction called Barrels & Billets has opened that allows visitors to blend their own bourbon, label it and take bottles home.

A few miles east, attached to a new vintage bourbon bar and tasting room called Neat, is Bungalou. Once a simple apartment complex, it has been transformed into a six-suite hotel experience with whiskey-themed rooms and packages offering special access to Neat. The courtyard offers games, fire pits, seating and, of course, the added attraction of getting to meet other bourbon aficionados.
Hotels and restaurants are giving themselves “bourbon makeovers,” as Yates put it, and businesses with nearly no connection to America’s native spirit are taking advantage of the liquid’s popularity as well. For example, Bourbon Barrel Foods produces everything from bourbon barrel soy sauce to spices and carries the slogan, “Eat Your Bourbon.”

Tourists have embraced the movement. They’re spending time—and money—in Louisville for reasons other than the Kentucky Derby.

While COVID-19 certainly tempered tourism, Yates said, 2019 brought 19 million visitors to Louisville, up from about 11 million back in 2007, before Louisville began its bourbon tourism push. Strategic planning with a board of leaders from various industries set a goal of 25 million visitors per year by 2030. A lot of that planning will be built on bourbon’s sturdy back.

“We’re seeing tremendous growth of those identifying that bourbon was indeed a driver to their visit,” Yates said, making Louisville more and more a vacation destination. “We went from being an aspirational brand in 2007 to finally becoming a true bourbon destination.”

Bardstown is epicenter of bourbon, surrounded by distilleries like Heaven Hill, Willett, Bardstown Bourbon Co. and Barton 1792. Throw in the nearby Jim Beam Distillery and Maker’s Mark and Bardstown boasts 11 distilleries within 16 miles of downtown.

The result? Three new hotels opened in Bardstown during the pandemic, with another on the way and “others knocking on the door.” Plus, more restaurants and Bardstown’s first brewery, Scout and Scholar. And, of course, more visitors.

“There are a lot of world-class kind of things happening here,” Brady said. “Two years of just absolute insane growth in a time when nothing was even open.”

Other communities are scrambling to get on board. Marion County’s economy had long relied on manufacturing. Now it’s actively trying to recruit businesses that would take better advantage of Limestone Branch, a craft distillery in Lebanon; Maker’s Mark in Loretto; and the industry’s first carbon-neutral distillery, a $130 million Diageo project completed in 2021.

Bobby Miles, president of the Marion County Industrial Foundation, said that while Marion County does attract tourists to the distilleries, there’s little to keep them there. He agrees that amenities for tourists such as hotels, restaurants and bars are indeed akin to infrastructure.

“It’s not like we have to build it and they will come,” Miles said. “They’re already coming. We’re not maximizing the value of having those folks in our county. They’re not spending the night. They’re not visiting our restaurants. We don’t have the infrastructure.”

Lexington’s Distillery District—featuring Barrel House, James E. Pepper and Alltech’s Town Branch distilleries—has also become an entertainment and dining destination. Several notable distilleries are nearby: Buffalo Trace and Castle & Key in Frankfort; Woodford Reserve in Versailles; Wild Turkey and Four Roses in Lawrenceburg.
A variety of bourbon-related attractions draw thousands of visitors to Northern Kentucky every year. The region bills itself as the Official Gateway to Bourbon Country, and its popularity has grown with the creation and promotion of The B-Line, NKY’s lineup of craft distilleries, bourbon bars and bourbon-centric restaurants.

Give the people what they want
Bourbon tourism itself also continues to evolve. Traditionally, when one thinks of a distillery, one thinks of a rustic farm setting with aging warehouses, barrels and alluring aromas. Many brands and distilleries embrace that but others like Rabbit Hole and Bardstown Bourbon Co. have chosen a more modern approach, setting a more upscale stage for its visitors. Either way, it’s about engaging the consumer and surrounding communities.

Green River Distilling Co. in Owensboro is one that embraces its history, which dates to 1885. After being purchased by Terressentia Corp. in 2014, a massive restoration took place and Jacob Call was hired as the master distiller. The Green River name was revived and to punctuate the distillery’s connection to its heritage, the owners procured Green River’s original distillery number, DSP-KY-10.

The distillery produces bourbon for several brands, from Terry Bradshaw to Ezra Brooks. It also had its first branded product, a four-year straight bourbon, released early this year to good reviews. But while it’s making its own whiskey the old-school way, it’s also giving tourists what they want. Call described the popular Green River visitor tour as a “hardhat, behind-the-scenes tour.”
The 24-acre campus also has a wedding venue and event space.

Touring Green River also means learning about the history, viewing artifacts from the original distillery and doing a tasting in a rickhouse.

“I think that’s what maybe makes it cool,” Call said of the varying approaches distilleries take. “You can go somewhere new and flashy and see the different innovations like Rabbit Hole does, or if you want to see tradition and heritage, then we’re your stop.”

The distillery has nearby Owensboro as a touchpoint. Owensboro, the western gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, provides the tourism infrastructure to keep people coming.

Bardstown Bourbon Co., on the other hand, is a massive glass-enveloped facility that looks like a modern museum. A visit there could mean anything from having a drink or a meal with friends, perusing the dusty bottle collection, doing a private bottling, taking a class and more.

The tour includes a tasting in an all-glass classroom and culminates in more tastings right from the barrel. There’s now also an outdoor bar. You can even book a VIP tour with Master Distiller Steve Nally. It’s all part of giving the visitors what they want and keeping them coming back for more.

“Everybody realizes you have to have something for the experience,” said Bardstown Bourbon CEO Mark Erwin, “not just walking folks through the distillery operation.”

But don’t think history isn’t part of what BBC is doing. Nally is a Bourbon Hall of Fame member and the distillery makes whiskey for the historic Kentucky Owl brand. Erwin said some visitors may be put off by the modern environment, but that doesn’t make anyone right or wrong.

“It all works together, I think,” he said. “We want people to go see Maker’s or go see Heaven Hill and then come over and see the modern approach to it. There’s plenty of room for all of us.”
That brings us back to distillery campuses like Log Still and it’s ever-evolving Dant Crossing, and Horse Soldier, which is practically building a small town near Somerset. It’s the natural evolution of an industry on the rise, an industry that needs this kind of so-called infrastructure to continue that growth.

Consider Dant Crossing: For starters, it’s multiple businesses in one. There’s not just a meeting hall that can be used for a wedding reception in a pinch; there’s a 350-seat chapel with a 700-seat banquet hall, a cocktail space and on-site, upscale catering. It’s a one-stop shop.

The Amp is an outdoor concert venue that already is booking national touring acts ranging from Tracy Lawrence to Joan Jett.

Don’t want to drive back home after the tours, tasting and concert? Book one of the on-site cottages or even a full Georgian-style home, which is near the wedding venue.

Some 90 miles west, Horse Soldier is building a 227-acre destination distillery overlooking Lake Cumberland. Horse Soldier will include a water feature and stillhouse that pays tribute to the World Trade Center’s twin towers that were attacked on 9/11 in New York City as well as a water garden with a replica of the America’s Response Monument. (Horse Soldier is owned by a group of U.S. veterans who were actively involved in counterterrorism following the 9/11 attack.) There will be a village offering shopping, a chapel, community event spaces, a lodge, cabins and a culinary feature. And, of course, the distillery operation.

Room for growth
“I believe that’s the future,” KDA’s Gregory said of these ambitious projects, noting that heritage distilleries are making concurrent expansions and improvements to keep pace, such as the recent opening of The Kitchen Table restaurant at Jim Beam Distillery, which serves Southern-inspired upscale food and cocktails.

As for the restaurant at Bardstown Bourbon Co., Gregory said he sees people he knows each time he visits. For him, that means these distillery attractions will be more than just tourist destinations for out-of-towners. Even though 70% of bourbon tourists are from another state, locals are also going to take the classes and visit the bars and restaurants. That only means more growth. That’s more infrastructure.

And that’s bourbon, if you’re in Kentucky. It’s the infrastructure on which the state’s economy is largely built.

“It truly is who we are,” Brady said. “It’s our heritage, our culture. That’s what makes us passionate about it. People now more than ever want authenticity. They want to step into an environment they know is completely authentic and live in that culture for a while.”

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