Local News
12:00 pm
Mon July 29, 2013

Louisville Re-Embraces its Bourbon Heritage as Distillers Return to Main Street

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Louisville's waterfront was the marketing center for one of Kentucky’s signature products, bourbon whiskey.

Dozens of distillery owners had offices and warehouses along the Ohio River.    The waterfront operations were known collectively as Whiskey Row.

Those businesses disappeared with Prohibition, but thanks to the libation's new popularity, Louisville is re-embracing its bourbon heritage.

Some of the original Whiskey Row buildings are still standing.   Several structures on Main Street near the KFC Yum Center are being preserved after decades of neglect.       

This is where, in the old days, visiting buyers could sample whiskey, or bourbon, which is whiskey made under stricter rules for ingredients and storage.  

Filson Historical Society bourbon historian Michael Veach says Whiskey Row also housed operations called rectifiers.  They would purchase cheap whiskey from distilleries to the south, then add flavor and color for quick resale. 

“One company advertised that it could make a nine-year-old whiskey while you waited," Veach said.

"The quality wasn’t always there."

The distillery companies vanished with Prohibition and Veach says Whiskey Row never regained its status as an industry hub.

“The whole society had changed drastically.   You went from being mostly a steamboat railroad society to an automobile society,” he said. 

But now, bourbon is back in town.  

Angel’s Envy will open a distillery and tourist stop next year in a long-vacant factory building along the old Whiskey Row corridor.    

“We do a unique thing by finishing it. We take the bourbon out of the white charred American oak cask and put into a French oak Portuguese wine cask for about six months.    It lends a little bit of fruitiness and kind of a soft texture characteristic you don’t typically get in bourbon,”  said Kyle Henderson, 24.

H's the processing and blending manager for Angel’s Envy, a brand of bourbon created several years ago by his grandfather, Lincoln Henderson, a retired master distiller for Brown-Forman, the producer of Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and several other spirits.

The name is a play on “angel’s share,” the term for the portion of liquor that evaporates from the barrel as it ages.  

“Typically you lose anywhere from two to five percent, depending on where in the warehouse it is.     So my grandfather said, maybe the angels will be a little envious of what’s left in the barrel, so we’ll call it the Angel’s Envy,”  Henderson said. 

Angel’s Envy is a small-batch bourbon, a concept that has helped propel the industry’s unprecedented growth in recent years.   

Two other companies, Michter’s and Kentucky Peerless, also recently announced plans to build Whiskey Row distilleries.

And that’s not all. 

Last year, Heaven Hill Distilleries announced the creation of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.    It will open this fall near the Louisville riverfront site where it's believed Williams fired up the state's first commercial still more than 230 years ago. 

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will include a micro-distillery and tasting room.    Visitors will be greeted by a huge fountain featuring a five-story bourbon bottle that empties into a glass.

“We call bourbon a food group in Louisville and embrace it,”  Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer exclaimed at the announcement. 

“It’s what you like as a mayor because as you’re talking to other mayors and people around the country, they say, 'what’s unique about your city, what makes you stand out?'”

The Evan Williams Experience will also be the eighth stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a tour of distilleries that drew more than 500,000 visitors last year.

Veach says he doesn’t expect the industry’s surge to slow down anytime soon.

“I think that it will continue to grow, at least for the next five or ten years, then I think it will probably come to a plateau and it will just kind of flatten out.    I don’t see it going into decline like it did in the '60s and '70s.”

And that bodes well for the revival of Louisville’s Whiskey Row.

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