Louisville's Main Street was once home to 89 bourbon companies. The one left standing today is Brown-Forman, and with the debut of its downtown Old Forester Distillery, whiskey is back on Whiskey Row in earnest.
"Whiskey Row was the heart of bourbon making," says Campbell Brown, Old Forester president and fifth-generation Brown family member in the bourbon business. By returning to the original building that the company occupied a century ago and welcoming visitors with an immersive distillery tour and experience, Brown hopes to make that historic connection clear. "We feel that we can tell a true origin story, the company and the family story. It's a really unique way for us to share some of the connections we have to Louisville."
The new $45 million, 70,000-square-foot distillery occupies 117 and 119 Main Street, where the company was originally headquartered for a period ending in 1922. Construction of the distillery took three years, and was interrupted by a three-alarm fire, which threatened to bring down the adjacent buildings. The project prevailed, though. Consider it only the latest setback for a company that has withstood Prohibition, recessions and depressions, and downturns in the bourbon business to be the sole continuously operational bourbon producer of those 89 that once shared the neighborhood.
Another historic note of importance for Old Forester is that in 1870 it became the first bourbon sold in sealed glass bottles for quality. Nearly 150 years later, the new standalone distillery is the first to assemble and char barrels in the same building where distillation is taking place. From fermentation and cooperage all the way through to maturation and bottling, the entire scope of whiskey production is on display.
The distillery's showpiece is the 44-foot copper column still at its center, capable of producing 100,000 gallons per year. It's not enough to satiate all of Old Forester's production needs though, and will therefore focus on small-batch products, private barrels and experimental releases.
"The real jewel is the flexibility this gives," Brown says. "And how we're going to be using this from an innovation standpoint."
Exploring the new Old Forester Distillery offers unique insight into the past, with something entirely fresh and new at the same time.
The Old Forester Distillery opens to the public on June 15. Tours, available daily, can be booked online at oldforester.com/distillery. View the photo gallery above for a sneak peek at downtown's new distillery experience, and see more Kentucky bourbon destinations below.