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Stepping into Heaven

Louisville's Heaven Hill have taken visitor centres in to a new dimension. Charles K. Cowdery went to the opening
By Charles K Cowdery
Long a staple of the Scottish travel experience, distillery visitor centres have finally begun to catch on in America’s whiskey heartland.The latest such venture to open its doors may also be the greatest, the Heaven Hill Distillery’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Kentucky. An impressive accomplishment in every respect, it raises the bar and sets a new standard for other companies that may be contemplating their own bid for tourists.Unveiled with suitable hoopla in October, for an audience of press and local dignitaries, the new Bourbon Heritage Center is a wonderful addition to this handsome little Kentucky town that boasts
several area bourbon distilleries as well as the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.Located next to Heaven Hill’s offices, bottling and distribution facilities, with apicturesque view of a dozen or so whiskey aging rickhouses across the road, the centre includes a museum, theatre, tasting room and gift shop. It makes good use of its setting and even the building materials themselves make a statement.They are copper (signifying the still), limestone (signifying the local limestonefiltered water) and oak (signifying the whiskey barrel). This bourbon trinity, it turns out, looks as good as it tastes.Heaven Hill, which began in Bardstown in 1934, is America’s largest independent, family-owned marketer and producer of distilled spirits products.It began life as a bourbon company and bourbon whiskey still is a major part of the company portfolio. Its key bourbon brands include Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Old Fitzgerald.For the grand opening, a large party tent was erected next to the centre. This allowed guests to experience all of the exhibits and other attractions undistracted by the grand opening festivities going on outside. It was a cool evening for Kentucky in mid-October. Space heaters helped, but generous pourings of the company’s best bourbons helped even more.The theatre located at one end of the centre shows a short film about the history of bourbon, the modern bourbon-making process, and the history of Heaven Hill and its brands. These three subjects are then presented in greater depth in the museum exhibits in the main hall.Since the history of whiskey-making in Kentucky is intertwined with that of the area’s earliest recorded settlements, that subject is covered as well.All of the displays in the exhibition hall are museum-quality and include many authentic artifacts from the time periods being explained, from flintlock rifles to parts of old stills. One side of the building is devoted to a general history of the industry and region, while the other is devoted to the Heaven Hill distillery itself.Also thoughtful in this regard is the material devoted to the company’s various bourbon brands. Some of the claims necessary for good product promotion can be incompatible with a responsible
presentation of history.The designers of the Bourbon Heritage Center managed to have it both ways by physically separating the brand stories from the real history. Some of the ‘history’ on the panels dedicated to Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, John Fitzgerald and others should be taken with a grain of salt, but all the rest of the historical presentation has been scrupulously untainted by marketing considerations.The museum’s developers also showed remarkable sensitivity to whiskey brands the company has acquired only recently, such as Old Fitzgerald. That highly regarded bourbon has been handed off several times due to industry consolidation.A12 year old version, called Very Very Old Fitzgerald, discontinued more than 20 years ago, is considered by many aficionados to be one of the best bourbons ever made. A full bottle of this precious elixir, in a sturdy, locked case, is there on display.The three families who have been involved with Heaven Hill for most of its history are presented in the exhibits and were represented at the opening. They include the Shapira family (who own and
manage the company), the Beam family (who make the whiskey), and the Homel family (who sell it).Echoing on a grand scale the shape of a whiskey barrel is the ‘Taste of Heaven’ bourbon tasting room, which seats 22 on high bar stools for a guided tasting of Heaven Hill bourbons.This room and others at the centre are hung with large, original oil paintings depicting key events in the distillery’s history. The wood inlay of the tasting room’s counter top is cypress taken from
the distillery’s old fermenters.Unfortunately, those fermenters are no longer in use because the original distillery at Heaven Hill was decommissioned by a terrible fire in 1996 that also destroyed seven rickhouses and 7.7 million gallons of bourbon. Though not on the official tour, the ruins of that distillery are just over the hill and visible from the road.In 2000, Heaven Hill replaced that distillery by acquiring the Bernheim plant in Louisville from Diageo. Consequently, Heaven Hill visitors in Bardstown do not get to tour a distillery.Instead, several well designed exhibits explain the bourbon-making process. Here again, somebody was thinking. One exhibit allows the visitor to smell whiskey at different ages.No tricks are involved. There is actual whiskey inside the exhibit. Pressing the button starts a fan, which blows the scent of the whiskey out toward the guest through a large cone, like the business end of a megaphone. Other exhibits are equally well conceived and executed.After the centre visitors can go to see Heaven Hill maturing in one of the nearby storage rickhouses.If the Bourbon Heritage Center seems to have learned a thing or two from some of the better distillery visitor centres in Scotland, it’s not a coincidence.Heaven Hill’s director of guest services is Lynne Grant, who previously managed The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret in Crieff, Scotland’s most visited distillery, and before that was at The Macallan and Highland Park.The Bourbon Heritage Center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. From March to October it also is open on Sunday from noon to 4:00pm. Admission and tastings are free. For more information you can email them at funfolks@bourbonheritagecenter.com