Urban Bourbon: Introduction

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is one of the most enjoyable and best developed touring trails one could hope for, unless of course one happens to be the designated driver. The Trail winds through picturesque country roads, mostly centered around the historic town of Bardstown where many of the major bourbon distillers cluster (more or less, anyway), but it also meanders out to Lexington and the state capitol of Frankfort, home of Buffalo Trace. Wel, sort of. We’ll cover that in a second. All told, the official Trail hits seven distilleries: Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and the newly added Town Branch (also known by it’s much more cumbersome name, Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company). The addition of Town Branch fills the space left by the departure of Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace and their associated Tom Moore distillery from the Trail program. Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac felt they were doing pretty well on their own with attracting tourism and so opted not to chip in for the officially blessed Bourbon Trail. However, most anyone who has done the tour doesn’t realize Buffalo Trace is no longer part of it, so they sort of get lumped in regardless.

The recently unveiled Craft Bourbon Trail (somewhat curiously named since only a couple of the distilleries on it make bourbon) expands the web even further, so that one could spend days tracing the back routes and blue highways in search of copper stills and corn-based spirits.

Oddly missing from either bourbon trail, however, is the state’s largest city and one-time distilling powerhouse, Louisville.

Louisville has the Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of bars and restaurants with impressive bourbon collections ready to pour, but when it comes to distilleries and distillery tourism, the city is sadly bereft of any attractions — well, any official attractions, anyway. At one time, Louisville was home to more whiskey distillers than you would want to count. Almost all of them are gone now, victims of Prohibition, bad economic times, mergers, and sell-offs. From hundreds, the number of active distilleries in the greater Louisville area has dwindled down to two, though they are two of the biggest producers in the market. Only Brown-Forman, maker of Old Forester and Early Times among others, and Heaven Hill have active distilleries in the Derby City. Neither is open for tours. Brown-Forman’s face on the Bourbon Trail is the lovely Woodford Reserve, and Heaven Hill directs people to their Bardstown Bourbon Heritage Center, where no distilling is actually done.

But the remnants of Louisville’s past as the epicenter of whiskey production int he United States still lingers, albeit in sometimes difficult to discover ways. Old distilleries and warehouses still litter the urban landscape, especially along the stretches of Dixie Highway and South Seventh Street between Ralph Avenue and downtown’s Broadway, a neighborhood roughly known as Shively (“lively Shively” if you prefer). That’s probably part of what keeps these old sites from being highlighted on any bourbon tourism itineraries the state may publish. That length of Dixie Highway is known primarily for its combination of urban blight, occasional pockets of bleak desolation, and rows of low income housing plagued by drugs, gangs, and crime (though that is probably making the neighborhoods seem more dramatically dangerous than they actually are, at least in the daytime). The ribbon of South Seventh Street that houses the hulking remains of the city’s bourbon industry is known these days almost exclusively for its staggering proliferation of seedy strip clubs and sex stores.

Neither setting does a whole lot to advance the down home, historical yarn the Bourbon Trail likes to spin for itself, and even the big industrial distilleries like Beam and Wild Turkey look considerably less threatening nestled amid misty green hills and bubbling brooks instead of rubbing shoulders with porno theaters and meth labs. But me, I’m a Louisville boy, and to me Louisville’s bourbon heritage should be better celebrated even if it means folks have to deal with something a little grittier than distant waterfalls and grazing thoroughbreds. Unfortunately, since all of the old locations are pretty much off limits to the public, you have to also navigate cops, suspicious security guards, and the occasional guard dog just to get a glimpse of a building that used to belong to the world of whiskey. But then, what’s a little trespassing in the name of history?

So it was that one frosty winter morning we turned off the well-worn and well-marked Bourbon Trail and headed down the potholed streets and grimy access roads to dig up a little about Louisville’s once great distilling past. I’ve done my best to make sure the information is accurate, using a professional combination of hearsay, Google Maps, the foursquare check-ins of previous seekers, a twelve-year-old article called Ghosts of Shively, and when all that failed, blind stumbling. For the sake of managing the information, I’m splitting this article up into four posts (not including this rambling introduction). The first three will cover Louisville’s two active distilleries (Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill) and the semi-dormant Stitzel-Weller, where there is no distilling but there is aging going on. Part four will cover the long dead remnants in the area: Four Roses, Glencoe, Seagrams, Bernheim, Yellowstone, Hill and Hill, and a few (mostly along South Seventh Street, where we were running short on time) I’ve been unable to identify or verify and am hoping for some help. Trying to juggle driving, deciphering vague directions, finding spots to pull off, and avoiding attention when able meant that my photo taking suffered. Plus, sometimes you just can’t get a very good vantage point. Now that I know my way around a little better, subsequent trips should yield better fruits, but that’s for another time. Until then, when I wasn’t able to snap a bad photo, I’m relying on Google maps and Streetview for illustration.

Note once more, most of these locations are closed to the public, so if you want to snoop around, do so with consideration (or substantial sneakiness, but mostly consideration). Many, but not all, understand their historic past and are tolerant of the occasional curious pilgrim pausing out front. Also, I don’t want to overplay the state of the neighborhood, but I don’t want to understate it either. Shively has seen better days, and while we didn’t have any problems skulking around taking photos, one should be aware of one’s surroundings and exercise some basic precaution and sensitivity.

And you know, since we are talking about bourbon, we’ll also throw in the occasional sipping recommendation. I strongly suggest you save this portion of the tour for when you are back home or at one of the Urban Bourbon Trail bars.