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Jeff McKenzie on Louisville’s urban bourbon distilleries: ‘Every city in America is looking for something like this’

by Steve Kaufman

Fort Nelson Building. (Click to see full size.)

When Insider Louisville first reported in the summer of 2011 that Michter’s Distillery had purchased the historic Fort Nelson Building for a downtown distillery – open to the public – it ignited a spirited explosion of hope.

Old, historic buildings such as the Fort Nelson at Eighth and Main streets would spring back to life and tourists would flock to embrace this most famous of Kentucky products.

I’ve been to Amsterdam, where tours of the Amstel and Heineken breweries are de rigueur tourist stops between a morning canal boat ride and a nighttime visit to the red light district. Urban bourbon distilleries ought to be a slam dunk for Louisville, a Peyton Siva-to-Gorgui Deng alley oop.

Speaking of which, we already have a world class downtown basketball and concert facility and terrific bars and restaurants. Why the heck is this urban bourbon phenomenon taking so long?

Well, we are getting closer.

According to attorney Jeff McKenzie, partner at Bingham Greenbaum Doll, the Michter’s project is rolling along. The company has encountered some structural and support issues that aren’t at all unexpected, just taking longer than originally thought.

Once anticipating a Derby opening this year, the attorney now says the ETA has been extended. “That’s just the nature of historic property renovations on Main Street,” says McKenzie, whose firm is involved in all three projects green-lit projects, Michter’s, Heaven Hill and Angel’s Envy.

“Heaven Hill will also take a long time  … (with owners) determined to preserve the historic bones of the building.”

But when they’re all finished, McKenzie said, “it will truly transform downtown. Every city in America is looking for something like this and we have the true opportunity.”

McKenzie calls these distilleries “primary players,” meaning restaurants will follow, hotel rooms will fill up and maybe even retail will begin to occur. The basic traffic is certainly there.

“The last I heard, the (Louisville Slugger Museum) had a quarter of a million visitors last year,” he said. “On a nice spring day, count the people carrying souvenir baseball bats up and down Main Street.”

Next year, maybe they’ll be carrying cocktail glasses.

Work is under way at the Heaven Hill project, just west of the Humana Building. 
Credit: Kevin Yates. www.bourbonbuilt.com

In the interim, as barricades and support beams went up on the corner of the Michter property, other deals are projects are coming into focus:

• Back in October, contractors built a huge brace/truss on the east side of the Fort Nelson Building, where a 2009 stairwell collapse nearly cost two Downtown Development Corp. execs their lives. The lattice work of steel girders looks permanent, which means the street might stay closed down to River Road. Back in March, Michter’s CEO Joe Magliocco told us his main company, Chatham Imports in New York City, had closed on the purchase of the building.

• Last spring, Heaven Hill Distillers announced plans to create “The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience” at Sixth and Main, the distiller’s former Louisville headquarters building. This will be a $10 million “artisanal distillery, immersive tourism experience and retail location,” according to news releases and media reports. Last month, Heaven Hill executives asked Metro Government officials to back $10 million in bonds.

• Last month, Insider Louisville reported Angel’s Envy, the sinfully good product of legendary spirits expert Lincoln Henderson, was about to take part of the Vermont American building across from Slugger Field.

• A number of other distillers, including Brown-Forman, have plans for urban bourbon tourist attraction/brand builders downtown. Executives at Chicago-based Beam also are looking for a building for a Maker’s Mark facility, according to sources.

Imagine the possibilities. A downtown Bourbon Row, blending into the existing experiences of the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center, those two other iconic products of Louisville. (Maybe Col. Sanders or Churchill Downs could be convinced to take some available Main Street museum space, as well.)

No more having to drive out to the countryside for the true bourbon experience.

The drive and the country are gorgeous, and the experience fun, but why shouldn’t that same experience be available in the Commonwealth’s main city, where conventioneers flock, residents live and the Derby alone brings in tens of thousands of people from around the world?

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