Ripples from the Bourbon boom have reached far outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but the epicenter of Bourbon growth remains strong. A January 2019 Economic Impact Study prepared for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association shows that the Kentucky Bourbon industry has doubled its economic impact in the Commonwealth in just a decade. More than 20,000 people in Kentucky are employed by the Bourbon industry and its auxiliary industries, $1 billion in payroll, double that of a decade ago.
This boom has brought about a golden age in Bourbon tourism on top of the growth in research and innovation within the industry. In short, the Bourbon industry is leveraging its own popularity to ensure this golden age continues as long as possible and leaves the industry as strong as possible when the growth begins to level off.
Louisville has positioned itself as a Bourbon tourism powerhouse.
In Louisville, arguably the hottest spot in the Commonwealth for Bourbon tourism, the already developed Bourbon tourism scene has grown to include fully operational distilleries, a major museum exhibit and welcome centre, tuk tuk Bourbon tours and more.
“We have had around 74,000 guests into the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center since it opened August 30, 2018,” says Andy Treinen of the Frazier History Museum. “Most are looking for information, guidance, events and experiences. Others are just looking for great Kentucky Bourbon and they’ve heard about our selection and vintage offerings.”
“The Spirit of Kentucky Bourbon Exhibition and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center were built to add to the experience tourists were enjoying before the Frazier was named the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” Treinen explains. “Guests not only leave armed with a better understanding about Kentucky’s signature industry, they leave with a plan of attack and tools that will make their time on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail more enjoyable. These tools can include sensory kits which guest can take with them for future tastings, itineraries, and discounts, or upgraded experiences on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail which were opened by visiting the Frazier. More importantly, our guests grow from Bourbon followers to Bourbon leaders.”
Those Bourbon leaders wanted more options to get around the city, and Mint Julep Experiences was happy to oblige.
“In 2017, we began to consider how to effectively tour, transport and develop experiences around the explosive growth in downtown Louisville Bourbon tourism,” says Mint Julep Experiences co-founder Sean Higgins. “As the downtown distilleries began to come online, our Mint Julep Experiences visitors were looking to stay longer and seeking more things to do. We knew there was some potential magic if we were able to come up with the vehicle to create a lasting memorable experience. We discovered a sustainable (electric), safe (Dept. of Transportation approved) and responsible (we do all the driving) approach. The bonus is that they are so dang fun that we hope all those wishing to see what downtown Louisville has to offer find us and the experiences we have created.”
“All of our curated adventures are hosted by our Cruiser Captains who will escort, educate and entertain our travellers with local knowledge, history, and lore,” explains Higgins. “We have sightseeing stops, distillery stops, cocktail stops, and shopping stops along the several routes we travel. We have partnered with several local distilleries, restaurants, bars, and shops within the urban Bourbon footprint in hopes our guests experience Louisville in a manner they never imagined.”
Sara Havens, a local journalist who covers drinking culture, is one of the ‘Cruiser Captains’. “Bourbon City Cruisers give you a personalised tour of downtown Louisville distilleries, cocktail bars and city highlights from a guide who is immersed in the history and culture of the area,” says Havens. “They're fun, laid-back and even include a few cocktails or samples of Bourbon, depending on which tour you choose. It's the best two-and-a-half hours you'll have on three wheels. So far I've only been doing the Cocktail Cruises, so my favourite stop on that one is definitely Whiskey Row. Seeing their eyes light up when I point out all the history, although I'm guessing they're dazzled instead by all the bars in the area, as well as the Old Forester Distillery, never gets old. It's a fun few blocks of Louisville history.”
In the last eight years nine distillery visitor centres have opened up in Louisville. Michter’s announced plans in 2011 but was the last to open in 2019, and during that time frame Evan Williams, Copper & Kings, Kentucky Peerless, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Angel’s Envy, Rabbit Hole, and Old Forester opened, creating a higher level of Bourbon and distilled spirits tourism than had ever been seen before.
“Visitor numbers continue to increase at our distillery in great part to the revitalisation of the Bourbon industry,” says Angel’s Envy production manager Kyle Henderson. “In addition to the distillery tours we offer, we also host cocktail classes and a ‘Bottle Your Own’ programme both providing guests with a hands-on experience and an inside look into our process. Continued growth and innovation is and always will be our brands main focus. We will be distributed in all 50 states by the end of the year and we also recently purchased 354 acres in Henry County, which is about 45 minutes northeast of our downtown distillery. We’ll be constructing a 45,000 barrel warehouse on the property which is set to open in November. We plan on starting construction on a second warehouse by late summer.”
Just down Main Street is the new Old Forester Distillery.
“Visitors are stunned by the design and flow of the experience,” says Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan. “I have yet to come across a group that hasn't been impressed by the modern design perfectly integrated into the genuinely historic bones of the brand. So far, we have welcomed more than 67,000 guests into our Whiskey Row home. Old Forester on Whiskey Row is the only distillery experience where guests can witness the full production of a product, including a fully operational cooperage. The space Old Forester is housed in is its historic headquarters from the late 1800s. Being able to experience the brand today within the same walls it was founded in is an incredibly unique point of pride for us as a team.”
One of the most unique things about the Bourbon industry is the fact brands want visitors to be brand loyal to Bourbon as a category, rather than just their own brands.
“We actually encourage everyone to go explore the other distilleries in downtown Louisville,” says Zykan. “Every facility offers a unique experience and story, and seeing them all really is key to understanding the category holistically.”
Louisville’s ‘Bourbon Brand’ is so strong, even newer iterations of old distilleries are receiving international acclaim. Kentucky Peerless, just a few blocks further down Main Street from Old Forester, was named Global Craft Producer of the Year by Whisky Magazine earlier this year, only four years after opening its doors.
"This award isn't just about the product,” says Kentucky Peerless co-founder Carson Taylor. “It's about the distillery, the people who work here, how the product is made and where it's made. We are honoured to receive this award, we consider it as validation for taking a nonconventional approach."
“We’re not going to get cocky about it by any means,” says Kentucky Peerless co-founder Corky Taylor. “We love that we have it because we’re a fairly new distillery – we’ve only had our doors open for four years – so we want to be humble by winning this. But we want to still try to figure out how to make it better every day.”
“We’ve had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world,” Corky Taylor says. “Our best state is Wisconsin, so it’s amazing how many people we get from New York to California and all over the world. We never knew this would happen, but we are excited to talk to these people. It's fun meeting people from all over the world who come in here.”
Outside of Louisville, organised Bourbon tourism is booming
Distilleries have long been welcoming places to learn about Kentucky and Bourbon history together, and even in the tough days the industry understood the importance of hospitality when it came to turning casual fans into an army of ambassadors. During the last year Castle & Key has finally opened to the public for tours, while Buffalo Trace began distillation in its ‘Bourbon Pompeii’ exhibit, both extremely exciting occurrences to whiskey geeks. Now that things are going well, the industry is redoubling on that effort to turn every visitor into a Bourbon evangelist, and state, county, and city governments and tourism agencies are working together to achieve the maximum ROI.
“Bourbon tourism continues to grow by leaps and bounds in the past year,” says MeetNKY VP of sales and marketing, Julie Kirkpatrick. “Our hotels, bars and restaurants are all reporting big increases in sales. I feel like we are more connected to the Commonwealth than ever and we have done a solid job defining our uniqueness as part of the Cincinnati region, the high spirited part of the region and the “Edge” of Bourbon country in more ways than one.”
Northern Kentucky is a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio by many measures, but because Ohio is a control state it’s also a point where people funnel into the Commonwealth in search of better Bourbon options. The local tourism board seized the opportunity last year to form The B-Line, which is a sort of passport program for Bourbon tourism in the area which encompasses distilleries, bars, and shops, and the response has been astounding.
“We will welcome another new distillery partner, Second Sight, as they join the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour along with continuing to promote the newest Kentucky Craft Trail Distillery, Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta along with New Riff, Boone County Distilling and Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville,” says Kirkpatrick. “We will wrap up the year partnering with an exciting new festival in Northern Kentucky, “Kentucky’s Edge” that will be held October 4 and 5. This flip on a traditional festival will be hosted all over Covington and Newport, an event in a cool urban environment celebrating all things Kentucky.”
In Lexington, organised efforts have resulted in a passport program offered by 21c Lexington, a boutique hotel with strong ties to the Bourbon industry. The distillery tours, whiskey bars, and other businesses there have been drawing Bourbon lovers for a few years. One business, Justins’ House of Bourbon, capitalised on the passing of the ‘Vintage Spirits Law’ to offer the public the largest retail collection of vintage whiskeys in the world.
“So far it’s been better than expected. Probably 70-80 per cent of the people who walk through the doors are there for tourism,” says co-founder Justin Sloan. “They are always interested to see the stuff they can’t see in their area. It’s experiential retail, we have more than what they can find at a distillery.”
The concept has been so popular, Justins’ will open a new location in Louisville this summer.
While Bardstown, Kentucky has always been a leader in tourism, recent growth has made an additional impact on the community.
“According to the official economic impact numbers compiled by Kentucky Tourism, Bardstown’s direct economic impact from tourism has grown from $43.6 million in 2009 to $63.2 million in 2017, a 45 per cent increase,” says Bardstown-Nelson County tourism commission executive director Mike Mangeot. “The continued investments by distilleries in their visitor experiences... have greatly impacted Bardstown.”
“Three new distillery experiences opened in 2019: LuxRow Distillers, Preservation Distillery and Bottle & Bond Kitchen & Bar at the Bardstown Bourbon Co.,” says Mangeot. “Kentucky Owl Distillery revealed plans for Kentucky Owl Park, a 400 acre ‘Bourbon Disneyland’ that is scheduled to break ground in 2020.
"This year, Heaven Hill is investing nearly $18 million in an expansion of the Bourbon Heritage Center. Bardstown Bourbon Co. will start a new tour operation, and we have two new hotels under construction – and a third in the planning stages.”
The State of the Commonwealth of Bourbon is stronger every day.