Bourbon maker plans downtown Louisville attraction

The country's largest family-owned distilled spirits company hopes to draw thousands of tourists to a small distillery it's opening in a stretch of downtown Louisville once known as "Whiskey Row," close to the site where the namesake of its popular Evan Williams bourbon once set up a whiskey still nearly 230 years ago.

In a sign of the ongoing resurgence of bourbon in the Bluegrass state, Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. on Thursday announced a $9.5 million renovation of a downtown building it owns.

"It brings together a lot of important economic development, tourism and historical forces," Heaven Hill Executive Vice President Harry Shapira said at the announcement that drew a bevy of local and state leaders.

The attraction, complete with a five-story-high Evan Williams bottle towering over the lobby, will immerse visitors in the whiskey-making process. It will feature an artisanal pot still distillery capable of producing a range of American whiskeys. Exhibits will trace Kentucky's long whiskey-making tradition all the way back to 1783, when Welsh immigrant Evan Williams set up a distillery almost directly across the street from where the new attraction will be located.

Williams served as an early city trustee and wharfmaster in Louisville and built the first county clerk's office and city jail.

He was known for bringing a jug of his finest whiskey to those early trustees meetings, Shapira said. The whiskey maker was publicly chastised for doing so, "but he never left with a full jug," he said.

Now, Heaven Hill's flagship Evan Williams brand is the second-largest selling bourbon in the U.S. and the world.

The attraction, called The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, is expected to open by September 2013. The company estimates it will draw more than 100,000 tourists a year.

"We welcome back the spirit of Evan Williams," Shapira said.

The five-story bottle will be reproduced as window graphics in the top three floors, but will become three dimensional in the two lower floors as the neck of the bottle and a large glass in the lobby form a flowing "bourbon fountain."

Visitors won't be able to take a nip from the fountain, which will actually contain amber-colored water that looks like bourbon. But bourbon sipping will take place in tasting rooms elsewhere in the building.

Bardstown-based Heaven Hill said its attraction will create 14 new full-time jobs and nine part-time jobs. The state has approved nearly $500,000 in corporate income and sales tax breaks for the project. The sales tax incentives apply to the cost of the project.

But the economic impact goes far beyond the few jobs created. It will become another destination in a burgeoning bourbon tourist trade in the state synonymous with whiskey making. A recent study by a University of Louisville economist found that tourists visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail spend some $737 each on average.

"We're right on the front end of this phenomenon," said Bill Samuels Jr., chairman emeritus of Maker's Mark bourbon and former longtime president and CEO of the renowned brand known for its red wax seal.

Heaven Hill makes its Evan Williams brand and other bourbons at a large distillery elsewhere in Louisville. The whiskey is aged in warehouses at Bardstown. Founded in 1934, Heaven Hill's other brands include Burnett's Vodkas and Gin, Admiral Nelson's and Blackheart Rums, The Christian Brothers Brandies and Rittenhouse Rye Whisky.

The project adds momentum to efforts to revive the city's whiskey tradition.

Michter's Distillery, a maker of premium bourbon and rye, is working to transform another nearby historic building into a distillery that will offer tours and tastings. The company hopes to open the distillery in the spring of 2014, said company President Joseph J. Magliocco.

Samuels predicted in an interview that the downtown Louisville corridor will lure more bourbon ventures within a couple of years

The projects come as Kentucky's bourbon business is on an upward trajectory, thanks to the popularity of its premium, and pricier, brands and the comeback of cocktails appealing to younger adults. World markets are showing an unquenchable thirst for Kentucky bourbon.

Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson called it bourbon's largest expansion period in Kentucky since Prohibition. Some of the state's most recognizable bourbon makers have invested more than $225 million in expansion projects either under way or recently completed, he said.

Meanwhile, more tourists are flocking to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail winding across portions of central Kentucky. It connects the Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey distilleries.

The trail's growing popularity is leading Wild Turkey to make plans to build a new $4 million visitor center at its distillery near Lawrenceburg, said Umberto Luchini, head of marketing for Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey.

The more than 8,000-square-foot center will overlook the Kentucky River. Groundbreaking is expected before September, with the opening planned in mid-2013, he said.

Luchini said there's "brotherly" competition among the bourbon makers to offer the best tourist experience.