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Recipe for bourbon revival

Kentucky’s signature spirit is back, and Louisville is ready to make the most of it

By Kevin Gibson
For The Lane Report

When Welsh immigrant Evan Williams set up his first distillery in Louisville north of what is now Main Street in downtown Louisville, he never could have imagined the love affair the city – and the entire state of Kentucky – would have with bourbon whiskey over the next 200-plus years.

Whiskey Row is situated in the heart of downtown Louisville.
Whiskey Row is situated in the heart of downtown Louisville.

Then again, maybe he could; Williams was a man who loved his town as much as he loved his whiskey. The recently opened Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville is quick to illustrate this fact in its unique attraction that sits just south of where that first still began operating shortly after Louisville was founded.

The tour begins with a video re-enactment of Williams’ early years being involved with city operations as part of its Board of Trustees and his appointment as harbor master, controlling the water traffic that came through and stopped at Louisville’s port.

The tour follows his distilling legacy, as well as Louisville’s bourbon heritage through the generations by way of a full-on, walk-through experience that includes a simulation of Williams’ still and takes visitors up through the heyday of Whiskey Row, through Prohibition and into the present.

The Evan Williams Experience is quite a monument – and it is a worthy testament to the resurgence of bourbon as part of Louisville’s economy. The push to revive Whiskey Row is moving forward, full throttle, and Louisville is eager to begin reaping the rewards on a big level. Michter’s is building a $10.9 million distilling and bottling facility in Shively, and is restoring the Fort Nelson building downtown at 801 W. Main St. into a distilling and tourism center. Angel’s Envy is planning a distillery and bottling operation in the Vermont American Complex on East Main.

It’s no shock to anyone that bourbon offers a huge economic boost to Kentucky; the state is synonymous with the bourbon industry much the same way Napa is synonymous with wine and Milwaukee is synonymous with beer. But Louisville had, in many ways, been left behind in favor of Frankfort, Bardstown, Loretto and other smaller towns in Kentucky where distilleries have taken root.

So the $10.5 million Evan Williams Experience represents the cusp of change, a return to whiskey prominence for Kentucky’s largest city. It signals a resurgence of the once-thriving Whiskey Row in Louisville’s downtown, which featured dozens of distilleries up until the 1920s. Whiskey is back, and Louisville’s city officials and tourism representatives are set to make the most of it.

“Typically, when someone comes to Louisville they don’t know what to expect,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose job is helping to sell the city to convention planners. And what happens when a convention planner arrives to tour the city and assess its amenities?

Bourbon-centric events 365 days a year

bourbon“They are overwhelmed. They fall in love with the city. They decide they can fit here,” Yates said. “And it’s affordable, so they can book it. … Our culinary and bourbon segment is giving it added appeal. What we think of as more of a leisure product actually helps entice visitors.”

The bureau has been utilizing the state’s bourbon attractions in its marketing since 2006. The Marriott Downtown added Charr’d Bourbon Kitchen and Lounge two years ago, and Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail of drink establishments continues to add destinations with at least 50 bourbons available (some have as many as 170).

And this was all in place before distilling returned to downtown.

When he took office in 2011, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was quick to see opportunity. Recently he organized the Bourbon and Food Work Group, comprising 34 tourism, dining, bourbon and hospitality officials – from Brown-Forman distiller Chris Morris to whiskey historian and author Mike Veach to Yates and others – to head up an initiative to help Louisville’s up-and-coming bourbon and dining scene thrive.

One key initiative in the mayor’s plan is to develop a downtown bourbon center where visitors and locals alike can go to learn about bourbon, then get on a guided bus tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, an eight-point (for now) destination to distilleries within an hour and a half of the city.

“Louisville has a renowned food and bourbon culture – and we are about to take it to an even higher proof,” Fischer said at the press conference announcing the initiative.

That was in early December 2013; the work group is set to re-convene this month to present its recommendations. Chris Poynter, communications director for the mayor’s office, didn’t offer any specifics as to what Louisvillians should expect but said he expects a large number of wide-ranging recommendations from the team.

“We want to be a culture where every night of the year there is something bourbon-related to do, something happening around bourbon and food,” Poynter said. “It could be a bourbon tasting, or it could be a dinner at one of our great local restaurants.”

While such events sound local and leisurely, they are intended for a wider audience than one might think. As an example, Lilly’s Bistro, a restaurant in the city’s Highlands neighborhood, held a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon tasting and dinner last November that drew a clamorous response, quickly selling out and drawing people not just from around the state but the region and even the country, according to Poynter.

Political vision to create a destination

Bourbon expert Fred Minnick, who serves as the Kentucky Derby Museum’s “Bourbon Authority,” applauds what is happening in Louisville. He cited the political barriers that provide a challenge to government leaders when it comes to distilleries – they are both highly taxed and highly regulated.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience includes tastings. (Brian Bohannon photo)
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience includes tastings. (Brian Bohannon photo)

“It is a true challenge for any major city to have several distilleries in one place,” Minnick said. “What he has done in his term in terms of helping these distilleries and working with the restaurants and visitors bureau is nothing short of commendable.”

Fischer also saw what Louisville has been missing. A recent economic impact study by the Kentucky Distillers Association says it all: Bourbon is responsible for 4,600 jobs in Louisville with a payroll of $263 million. And that’s before the coming influx of distillery attractions and other bourbon-related businesses.

Distilling in Louisville generates more than $31 million in tax revenue every year, and bourbon tourism is credited for as much as another $2.5 million annually. What will those numbers look like in a year? Two years? Five?

Meanwhile, tourism is a $1.4 billion industry for Louisville and supports more than 22,000 jobs. The mayor, as well as the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, understands the important connection between bourbon, dining, hospitality space, convention space and the almighty tourism dollar.

Louisville was, in December, ranked the No. 1 U.S. travel destination for 2014 by Lonely Planet, the world’s biggest guidebook publisher, which wrote in part: “Louisville has asserted itself as a lively, offbeat cultural mecca on the Ohio River. New Louisville, also known as the East Market District or NuLu, features converted warehouses used as local breweries, antique shops and the city’s coolest restaurants. On Bardstown Road in the Highlands you’ll find a hipster strip of shops and bars, not to mention many ‘Keep Louisville Weird’ stickers. Bourbon reigns in Louisville. This is the traditional jump-off for the Bourbon Trail; with bourbon’s current wave of popularity, new upstart microdistilleries, including some in and around Louisville like the small-batch Angel’s Envy, are giving the old names in bourbon a run for their money.”

As such, Yates routinely promotes the city with bourbon- and dining-centric promotional campaigns. One campaign bills Louisville as “The Culinary Capital of Bourbon Country;” an ad in Saveur magazine says, “We didn’t invent New Southern cuisine. We just added bourbon.”

Another campaign is the Hot Brown Hop, a “tour” of 35 restaurants around Louisville that feature a version of the signature Louisville dish that sort of mimics Louisville’s 27-bar Urban Bourbon Trail.

Something is clearly working. Liquor giant Diageo is about to invest an initial $2 million restoring the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively to create a visitor center that will feature Stitzel-Weller artifacts, a whiskey education section, and feature Bulleit brand and other bourbons.

Meanwhile, media reports suggest Louisville-based Fortune 500 member Brown-Forman is looking at a downtown distillery attraction on East Main Street. Poynter confirmed that at least two distilleries are eyeballing downtown for such attractions, but he said it was too preliminary to name them.

Other cities are envious

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience offers visitors a close-up view of the distilling process. (Brian Bohannon photo)
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience offers visitors a close-up view of the distilling process. (Brian Bohannon photo)

So, it’s no coincidence that NuLu is exploding with new restaurants, or that Main Street is suddenly bursting at the seams with new dining options. And it’s no surprise that there are at least four hotel projects in the works downtown, including a 600-room luxury hotel by Omni Hotels & Resorts near Louisville’s convention center.

In addition, there are plans in the works to expand the 300,000-s.f. Kentucky International Convention Center downtown to make room for bigger gatherings. That effort isn’t a guarantee yet, but the addition of hotel space, dining and attractions will drive it forward.

“We are currently working feverishly to get the convention center expanded and renovated,” Karen Williams, president and CEO of the CVB, said. “If that happens, we’ll be able to retain some of the business that has outgrown it. If we can get the expansion we’re projecting, another 25- to 30,000 s.f., we’ll be able to solicit 25 percent more business that the city has never been able to entertain that would only meet at a downtown convention center.”

One thing feeds another.

Convention planners want to know there is plenty to do near the convention center, so more bourbon attractions and dining feed that ability to bring those events. With the convention traffic comes the need for more dining and attractions, as well as the economic boost to make those things happen.

Best of all, when it was decided to begin touting Louisville as the gateway to Bourbon Country, it was a leap of faith based on the fact that bourbon is authentic to Kentucky and Louisville. It’s real.

“I have talked to my counterparts in Cincinnati and Indianapolis,” Yates said, “and they have told me they are very envious of this bourbon thing. And they are envious of our culinary scene as well. … We’ve got some things that are very authentically Kentucky and Louisville. Visitors want to have something that is uniquely authentic to the area.”

When the distilleries, bars and restaurants came on board, it created perfect storm of sorts that led to the ever-growing Urban Bourbon Trail. The ever-rising popularity of bourbon outside Kentucky is only adding to this storm.

“What Napa Valley is to food and wine, I want Louisville to be to food and bourbon,” Fischer said at his press conference back in December. It looks like he’s about to get his wish.

“He saw the vision of what Louisville could be and what Louisville used to be and said, ‘This could be the future,’ ” Minnick said. “If bourbon fails to succeed in Louisville, it fails to succeed, period. Louisville is an extremely, extremely important epicenter.”

Further success is clearly expected.

“I think in another year or two you’re going to see something like a mini bourbon trail between Main and Market streets,” Poynter said. “If you’re a visitor, you’ll be able to stay in downtown hotels and walk to bourbon attractions. We’ve got people investing millions of dollars in the bourbon industry. That’s only going to grow.”

Distiller and former city father Evan Williams would be proud.

More than just bourbon

Distilling encompasses more than just bourbon whiskey – even in Kentucky. Part of this meteoric rise in Louisville’s distilling scene involves other spirits.

Derby City Shine moonshine flavors will include spicy apple cider, lemonade and peach mango.
Derby City Shine moonshine flavors will include spicy apple cider, lemonade and peach mango.

Copper & Kings, a brandy distillery, opened in early April near downtown at 1111 East Washington Street. It is Louisville’s first and only brandy distillery.

Taking the position that there is plenty of bourbon being distilled already, co-owners Joe and Lesley Heron – the couple who developed Crispin Cider and sold it to MillerCoors – plan to find a niche in the Louisville distilling marketplace and do for apples and grapes what bourbon distillers do for corn, wheat and rye: turn them into delicious spirits.

The Copper & King distillery will have a rooftop tasting room and deck with a view of downtown on the three-story structure, with an art gallery set for the second floor, space for private parties, an outdoor courtyard, and there even will be a pig roaster and a “conversation pit.”

The brandy will be aged primarily in bourbon barrels, so the flavor and texture should seem quite familiar to bourbon lovers. But Joe Herron said Copper & Kings will use cognac barrels, sherry barrels and even barrels imported from Serbia.

“There’s enough traditional whiskey everywhere in the world,” Joe Heron explained, regarding why he and his wife chose brandy. In addition, he said, “We don’t see ourselves as a consumer product, we see ourselves as a lifestyle experience.”

This is part of the strategy – to be a unique attraction and vibrant part of the community, even offering bike racks on site to encourage Louisvillians to stop by during their riverfront rides.

In addition, a new moonshine distillery called Derby City Shine will open later this year at 436 Baxter Avenue, between downtown and the Highlands in the former spot of a night club called Flip Flop Jack’s.

Derby City Shine will distill its version of moonshine with a smoother flavor than regular corn whiskey provides; one small batch offering will be made from pure cane sugar. The distillery will also house a moonshine museum that traces moonshine’s history from backwoods production through Prohibition. There will be meeting and event space, a “speakeasy lounge,” a custom still with an overlook deck so visitors can watch moonshine being distilled and a retail store.

“We really want to be a tourist attraction, museum and a place where you can sample moonshine without having to buy it off a shelf or at a bar,” co-founder Jay Blevins said.

A brewing hub

As recently as 2012, Kentucky ranked near the bottom of U.S. states in terms of the number of breweries per capita. A study by the Brewers Association shows Kentucky had only 14 at that time, ranking them 43rd in the country.

Apocalypse Brew Works sells growlers of local favorites like Fallout Dust.
Apocalypse Brew Works sells growlers of local favorites like Fallout Dust.

By comparison, California had 316 breweries. That’s a far cry from the late 1800s and early 1900s when Louisville was in competition with brewing cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee, and when it was regarded as the top brewing city in the south.

But there’s plenty brewing in Kentucky in 2014 – the number of breweries and breweries waiting to open in the state has nearly doubled, according to the Brewers Association – and Louisville is leading that charge, helping establish the state as being about more than just bourbon. And much like bourbon, beer goes hand in hand with food. When a visitor comes to Louisville, they now have plenty of pairing opportunities.

“It’s almost impossible to go in a restaurant and not find a local Louisville beer on tap anymore,” John King, executive director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers. “And although not all breweries have a restaurant component, those who do not have a strong food truck presence.”

A classic example is Apocalypse Brew Works, a small brewery nestled near the city’s Butchertown neighborhood that opens only two days a week, selling growlers and pints of local favorites such as Fallout Dust (a peppery pale ale).

There are plenty of breweries that have full-service dining. Bluegrass Brewing Company has been brewing in Louisville since the early 1990s and now has four locations. The much-talked-about Against the Grain has a brewery and smokehouse at Slugger Field downtown with a brewing team churning out category-based beers that are always changing. Cumberland Brews, in operation since 2001 in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood, has a full menu and offers up beer brewed on premise.

And more are on the way. Great Flood Brewing opened in April just a few blocks from Cumberland in the Highlands neighborhood, and later this summer the city will see the opening of Beer Engine in the Germantown neighborhood.

“This is common for big cities to have many breweries,” King said. “The industry in general is growing, and Louisville is one of those cities.”

Louisville’s focus on bourbon could be an unintended deterrent to such an organized effort, but King believes Louisville is already a beer destination, boasting not only a number of well-regarded breweries, but also a number of beer bars and stores – Sergio’s World Beers in Butchertown was in Draft Magazine’s list of America’s Top 100 Beer Bars recently – that only further define the beer scene.

A big money food hub

In addition to its standing in the spirits world, Louisville also is a highly reputable foodie town. So much so, that in 2013 Lonely Planet ranked the city No. 1 as a United States travel destination. Noted for its bourbon, local breweries and amazing restaurants and the Urban Bourbon Trail, Louisville is a hospitality hot spot, and some major companies in the business also call it home.

These companies include: Texas Roadhouse, Papa John’s, Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), Long John Silver’s, Brown-Forman Corp. and a multitude of Urban Bourbon Trail members and local breweries.

According to Greater Louisville Inc., More than 120 food and beverage companies are located in this region, collectively employing well over 10,000 individuals and accounting for $8.2 billion in annual revenue. The largest member of this industry cluster is the Brown-Forman Corporation.  Headquartered in Louisville, Brown-Forman is among the top ten spirits companies in the world.

Yum! Brands represent the world’s largest restaurant company with revenues of nearly $11 billion.

The region’s food strength also lies in the diversity of products produced in the area, from tomato sauce to tortillas, peanut butter, pork and baked goods — thanks in part to the fact that Louisville is located within 500 miles of nearly half of the U.S. population and state and local incentives encourage the industry.