Why would Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc. open up an artisanal distillery and education center in the middle of downtown Louisville?
“How could we not?” says Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill. “It’s kind of a perfect storm. We’ve owned this building for more than 70 years. This was always part of Whiskey Row. Evan Williams’s original distillery was one block away And these four blocks along Main Street — Museum Row — attract three million tourist visitors every year.”
We’re talking in the “Mad Men” tasting room in the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience — appropriate, considering I’m day-drinking.
The attraction opened last week and has already seen 500-600 visitors in just four days. Tourism officials expect that the Experience will attract around 110,000 visitors per year. But Larry Kass and tour guide Deb both think that number will be considerably higher – 80,000 people have passed through Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Ky. each year since 2004.
The Experience is the first attraction in downtown Louisville to make it onto the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
And while Heaven Hill Distilleries and its history is certainly the star of the attraction, Louisville is a very prominent co-star, at least.
The Experience takes you time-travelling from the wharves of Louisville in the 1780s where Evan Williams served as wharfmaster down Whiskey Row through prohibition and the depression to the founding of Heaven Hill in 1934 by the five Shapira brothers.
The reportedly $9.5 million Experience is Louisville through and through. The exhibits were designed by Solid Light, Inc. on Third Street. The construction was by Abel Construction out in Bashford Manor. The copper stills are Vendome Stills, made just a mile or so away from the attraction.
Even the actors in the historical reenactment films are local. A regular Louisville theater-goer would recognize Tony Dingman from Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, J. Barret Cooper from Savage Rose Theatre Company and Bill McNulty from Actors Theatre.
Evan Williams himself, though, is an out-of-towner, actor Bill Simmons from Indianapolis.
During the first historical film, I leaned over to Deb – who worked front of house for Actors Theatre for many years – and said, “So Evan Williams was a pretty good-looking man, huh?”
Deb shrugged. “You know, we don’t have a single picture of him. So you’ll notice, we’ve had all the portraits of Evan created in the image of Bill Simmons.”
Hey, if you don’t know what your founder looked like, you might as well make him look like George Clooney crossed with the Brawny Towel guy.
At the heart of the tour is a working artisanal pot distillery that will produce around a barrel of bourbon a day (compared to 654 barrels a day at the main distillery). The two Vendome stills are manned by Charlie Downs, formerly the supervisor out at the Bardstown, Ky. distillery — right-hand man of Parker and Craig Beam, master distillers.
Downs has been with the company for 37 years. And Kass says that’s not really all that long compared to some of the other Bardstown employees.
Of course it will be at least four years – probably much more – before anyone can taste what Downs is cooking up in the distillery in either of the two tasting rooms.
The tour concludes with a 20-minute tasting in either the “Mad Men” room or the pre-prohibition era saloon with (spoiler alert) pub tables with peek-a-boo tasting drawers.
The tasting rooms are on the second floor. This floor features replica Main Street building facades including the facade of Phil. Hollenbach Co., the original occupant of the Experience’s 528 Main Street. It’s a facade adorned with Rookwood pottery tiles (the same maker who made the tiles in the Rathskeller in the Seelbach Hotel) and glass tiles designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Deb set me up with tastings of Evan Williams Single Barrel rye whiskey and Larceny, a wheated bourbon which made the cover of Bourbon Review back in April.
Larceny, made to compete with Maker’s Mark and at a lower price point, was named after John E. Fitzgerald, who was a Federal Revenue Agent back in the early 1800s. Fitzgerald, therefore, had a key to every bourbon rickhouse in Kentucky. After all the workers would go home, Fitzgerald would let himself in, climb to the top of the rickhouse and “sample” the best of the bourbon.
“Some say he was a bourbon connoisseur,” says Deb. “Other people say he committed … larceny.”
Evan Williams is the “fastest-growing high-volume bourbon,” says Kass. Heaven Hill is the largest family-owned distilled spirits company in America with 86 different labels. Vodka, not bourbon, is the number one seller.
But you won’t find vodka in the enormous gift shop (of course the tour ends in the gift shop). But what you will find is lesser-known products like Peppermint Chocolate Evan Williams Egg Nog and blended bourbons with honey and cherry. You’ll also find premium $350-$400 bottles of bourbon behind glass in the “archives.”
There’s also a two-story bourbon bottle fountain and a rental room downstairs for events. The “speakeasy” event room is hidden behind a safe door that’s original to the building. The bar there seats 4o, and it’s sure to become a go-to spot for business holiday parties and rehearsal dinners (the Bristol does the catering).
If you’ve ever been to the Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center out in Bardstown, Ky. – my favorite distillery tour on the Bourbon Trail – you’ll pretty much know what to expect. The Evan Williams Experience is more stylish and just as thoughtfully put together. It’s a worthy stop on any Bourbon Trail trek.
Tours are $12, $9 if you’re not of drinking age. Ask for Deb. And if she calls the attraction “Walt Disney World for adults,” that’s my line.
She said she’s going to steal it from me.