By Kevin Gibson
This past spring, I was in the Louisville Visitors Center downtown at Fourth and Jefferson one afternoon waiting to talk with a specific employee. A mid-60s looking couple walked in, and the greeter said, “Welcome to Louisville!”
In a vaguely British-sounding accent the visiting woman said, “Hello, we’re from South Africa. This is our first time here.”
“How can I help you?” the greeter asked.
“We want to taste bourbon.”
That pretty much sums it up for Louisville, Ky. Bourbon tourism showed no signs of slowing down in 2015, despite a massive fire on Main Street in the city’s historic Whiskey Row district that threatened to significantly alter or even halt plans for an Old Forester distillery and tourist attraction at 117 to 119 Main Street. While the fire devastated adjacent properties at 111, 113 and 115 Main, which themselves were in the planning stages to become new lofts and retail space, firefighters managed to save the Old Forester property, and Brown-Forman in April unveiled renderings of what the attraction will look like.
The new facility will include a 60,000-s.f. distilling operation and visitor center that will produce 100,000 cases of Old Forester annually and showcase the brand’s history. It is scheduled to open in late 2017.
With Michter’s and Angel’s Envy also planning active distilleries nearby on Main, and Rabbit Hole Distilling making progress just blocks away, Mayor Greg Fischer’s “Bourbonism” campaign appears to be working. In fact, the Kentucky Distillers Association reported that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour set an all-time attendance record in 2015 with nearly 900,000 guests touring the state, many of them kicking off those tours in Louisville.
The Bourbon Trail alone set a new milestone with 762,009 visits last year, shattering the previous year’s record by 22 percent.
Big splash with financial ripples
“What a phenomenal success story,” KDA President Eric Gregory said in a prepared statement. “The growth and impact of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is advancing Kentucky tourism beyond our wildest dreams. The entire commonwealth is seeing tremendous benefits from the increased investment and revenue.”
Meanwhile, a University of Louisville study estimated that bourbon visitors spend an average of $1,000 apiece while here. They stay longer and come in larger groups than other typical tourists, and more than 85 percent of them are from outside Kentucky, the study found. So, while the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience continues to thrive, new bourbon attractions continue to arise, from the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience to Peerless Distilling – which all only signals an “up” arrow for Louisville’s bourbon economy.
Even the Frazier History Museum, once devoted strictly to historic arms and weaponry, is getting in on the act with its “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky” exhibit, which is in place through 2016. Frazier announced last year it will develop a permanent bourbon experience that will include a visitor center.
Perhaps the crowning jewel for Louisville, however, is the return this year of the prestigious Kentucky Bourbon Affair fantasy camp in June. In addition, for the first time ever, Louisville also will host Whisky Live, an international celebration of the world’s finest whiskies. These events being held in Louisville will give the city an international spotlight and attract thousands of bourbon professionals and enthusiasts alike.
“The Kentucky Bourbon Affair has become one of our city’s signature bourbon events,” Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, said. “The addition of Whisky Live only elevates it further and adds to our tourism strategy of making Louisville a world-class destination.”
“With its ever-growing bourbon presence and world-class culinary scene, Louisville has firmly established itself as the heartbeat of bourbon culture,” Gregory said.
Meanwhile, the state as a whole is in the middle of a $1.3 billion bourbon building boom, including the aforementioned Louisville distillery projects, which will only add to the focus on Louisville as a tourist destination.
According to the CVB, tourism is the third largest revenue-producing industry in Jefferson County, generating $200 million in state and local taxes, with a direct spending impact of $1.1 billion. Tourism in the Louisville area also supports more than 26,000 jobs.
More hotels, more restaurants
Louisville’s growth can also be seen not just in the thriving bourbon culture, but in hotel development. Aloft, a 175-room boutique hotel, opened late last year and will serve Whiskey Row for years to come. Meanwhile, work began early this year on the Omni Louisville Hotel downtown, which will have 612 rooms along with 70,000 s.f. of event space, plus other amenities such as restaurants, bars, fitness center and even a market. A 225-unit upscale apartment complex will top off the 30-story structure.
In addition, an eight-story, 133-room Homewood Suites is set to begin construction soon downtown. In fact, the CBV reports that between now and the end of 2018, six new hotels will open in Louisville, including one in the popular NuLu district.
Of course, the Kentucky International Convention Center is undergoing a $180 million expansion and renovation to help support the influx of tourism; that expansion is expected to be completed in 2018.
Meanwhile, where there is tourism there are hungry tourists, and Louisville’s dining scene continues to thrive, with several new restaurants opening in early 2016 – like Doc’s Cantina, Le Moo, River House Restaurant & Raw Bar, and the Hub, as well as a recent burst of Nashville-style hot chicken with Royal’s and Joella’s. Plenty more are on the way in a city with more than 2,500 restaurants.
It’s probably no surprise then that, in April, Louisville was bestowed the honor “Best Destination Experience” in the World Food Travel Association’s FoodTrekking Awards. Runners-up were Helsinki, Finland, and Nova Scotia, Canada.
In other words, the next couple that walks into the downtown visitors center will have plenty of options available to them – and those options will continue expanding for the foreseeable future.
ATTRACTIONS & DISTILLERIES
Barton 1792 Distillery
Bardstown – 1792bourbon.com
Louisville – bourbonclassic.com
Louisville – earlytimes.com
Four Roses (warehouse/bottling facility)
Cox’s Creek – fourrosesbourbon.com
Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc.
Bardstown – heaven-hill.com
Heaven Hill Distilleries
Bourbon Heritage Center
Bardstown – bourbonheritagecenter.com
Jim Beam Brands Co./
Jim Beam American Stillhouse
Clermont – jimbeam.com
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Bardstown – kybourbonfestival.com
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Limestone Branch Distillery
Lebanon – limestonebranch.com
Maker’s Mark Distillery Inc.
Loretto – makersmark.com
Michter’s Distillery LLC
Louisville – michters.com
Louisville – oldforester.com
Urban Bourbon Trail
Louisville – bourboncountry.com/urban-bourbon
URBAN BOURBON TRAIL STOPS
(All in Louisville)
1767 Bardstown Road asiatiquerestaurant.com
1314 Bardstown Road avalonfresh.com
The Bar at BLU
280 W. Jefferson St. blugrille.com
Baxter Station Bar & Grill
1201 Payne St. baxterstation.com
2255 Frankfort Ave. baxterstation.com
Bristol Bar & Grille
614 W. Main St. bristolbarandgrille.com
The Brown Hotel Lobby Bar
335 W. Broadway brownhotel.com
425 W. Ormsby buckslou.com
Corbett’s: An American Place
5050 Norton Healthcare Blvd.
Derby Café: at the
Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave. derbycafe.com
Dish on Market
434 W. Market St. dishonmarket.com
Doc Crows Southern
Smokehouse & Raw Bar
127 W. Main St. doccrows.com
Equus & Jack’s Lounge
122 Sears Ave. equusrestaurant.com
Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar
140 N. 4th St. galthouse.com
10001 Forest Green Blvd.
Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge
446 S. 4th St. makerslounge.com
The Old Seelbach Bar
500 S. 4th St. seelbachhilton.com
Proof On Main
702 W. Main St. proofonmain.com
Ramsi’s Café on the World
1293 Bardstown Road ramsiscafe.com
11507 Park Road villageanchor.com