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Evan Williams Bourbon Experience: Louisville’s first urban bourbon attraction mixes history, digital technology … and samples!

by Steve Kaufman

EW Experience

All renderings courtesy of Heaven Hill.

Downtown Louisville is about to see the return of a working distillery after more than 200 years.

Heaven Hill Distillery’s new, multi-media $10.5 million Evan Williams Experience is scheduled to open Fri., Nov. 15 at Sixth and Main streets in what began life as the Hollenbach Building, the first step to restoring Main Street as Whiskey Row.

The Experience will include an old artisanal pot still, a replica of the traditional single-batch distillery equipment before continuous distilling made efficient mass production possible.

And Evan Williams Experience staff will make bourbon the old fashion way every day.

But bourbon drinkers after the opportunity to sample some spirits is not necessarily the primary audience for this facility. Historians, curators, tourists and those interested in the history of this bourbon business capital might find the tour just as interesting to the point Heaven Hill executives project 100,000 visitors per year will experience the Evans Williams Experience up close and personal.

One of the things they’ll discover is, despite the name Whiskey Row, the Main Street area was never a big distilling center. It tended to be the center for bottling, wholesaling and distribution.

“Distilleries tended to burn a lot, so they didn’t want distillers in the center of town,” says Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s director of corporate communications. Evan Williams himself was Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, as well as the wharf master of Louisville and a stone mason. (Which means this is the first working distillery in downtown Louisville since Evan Williams’ time.)

When the five Shapira brothers started Heaven Hill in 1934 right after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed Prohibition, their primary business was retail and the Hollenbach Building was their office building.

After World War II, independent retail downtown began to suffer as the bourbon business flourished. (The Evan Williams brand remains the second-largest-selling bourbon in the world behind Jim Beam.)

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Why all the history? Because that’s the basic premise of this installation. Fortunately, in the digital age, the Evan Williams Experience chose technology over hanging old photographs, recreating of ancient equipment and subjecting visitors to walls of plaques.

Kass describes what has become known in the public-events world as an “immersive experience.” That’s the difference between looking at a picture on a wall and becoming part of a town hall meeting in 1790, to which Evan Williams brought the refreshments.

EV Experience

Visitors then walk along the virtual Louisville wharf. To their left, is the Ohio River as it appeared in 1790. To the right is Main Street, featuring the Broadhead store and the Frenchman’s House and gardens.

Entire walls are filled with animated, computer-generated, high-definition graphics. The 18th Century riverfront activity bustles as 21st century visitors eavesdrop.

EW Experience 6

Evans Williams’ original stillhouse has been recreated in one room, a stone building with vignettes projected onto the stone walls. In “training an apprentice,” Williams explains how his distillery functioned 225 years ago.

That’s followed by a demonstration of how bourbon is brewed today followed by a reveal of the big artisanal pot still. Once a day, a barrel will actually be filled.

EWE Mad Men

One of the tasting rooms puts visitors in the middle of Whiskey Row in the 1880s. The other is a 1950s/60s Mad Men cocktail lounge, with Tony Bennett providing the entertainment.

And at the end of the tour, as with any good branded experience, is a retail store.

The tours take 45 minutes, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and cost $12 per adult. (There are discounts for seniors and the military, and group rates.)

The Experience will be open to the public at 10 o’clock Friday morning.

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