The new sign on the Old Forester Distillery is unveiled. | Photo by Sara Havens
The new sign on the Old Forester Distillery is unveiled. | Photo by Sara Havens

A congregation of top Brown-Forman execs, city and state officials, media, bourbon industry folks and four generations of the Brown family gathered this morning in a lot adjacent to Manny & Merle, which faces the future site of the Old Forester Distillery on Whiskey Row. It was no coincidence that the large, three-story “Hometown Hero” banner featuring George Garvin Brown, affixed to Manny & Merle, looked over the festivities. Brown, after all, is the creator of Old Forester, the nation’s first bottled bourbon.

The event marked the official construction kickoff of the Old Forester Distillery, a $45 million state-of-the-art facility that will open in 2017. Most of the speakers — which included Campbell Brown, president of Old Forester; Gov. Steve Beshear; Mayor Greg Fischer; Chris Morris, master distiller of Old Forester and Woodford Reserve; and Paul Varga, president of Brown-Forman — played up the distillery’s historical significance and key role in reviving Whiskey Row.

Gov. Steve Beshear adds the "special water" to the commemorative barrel. | Photo by Sara Havens
Gov. Steve Beshear adds the “special water” to the commemorative barrel. | Photo by Sara Havens

“It marks the beginning of the rebirth of bourbon on Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row,” said Phil Lynch, vice president and director of communications for Brown-Forman. Campbell Brown added, “This distillery will make confident strides into our future for Brown-Forman and Whiskey Row.”

Beshear began his brief speech going over statistics detailing what the bourbon industry brings to the state — the number of jobs, number of aging barrels, number of tourist dollars, etc. He then quipped, “But this story isn’t about numbers, it’s about heritage.”

Old Forester was created in Louisville in 1870 by the aforementioned George Garvin Brown, who started the batching and bottling process to make his bourbon more consistent in taste and quality. At one time, there were 89 bourbon companies along Louisville’s Main Street, hence the term Whiskey Row, as Morris explained. Old Forester is the only one left of the original 89.

Mayor Fischer mentioned that 16 days ago, the scene along that part of Main Street was grim — when a fire blazed through some of the historical buildings — and he thanked the Louisville Fire Department for aggressively attacking the fire while making sure the facades remained standing. The fire did not spread to 117 and 119 W. Main St., where the Old Forester Distillery will be located.

Old Forester cookies were served at the ceremony.
Old Forester cookies were served at the ceremony.

Fischer also said the bourbon industry is responsible for more than 4,000 jobs in Louisville, and that “bourbonism” is just at the beginning of a long progression. Varga, who wrapped up the ceremony, agreed. “We believe we’re at the early stage of a bourbon renaissance,” he said.

The speakers were then invited to fill a commemorative barrel with special water, while samples of Old Forester 1870 Original Batch were passed out to the crowd. After the toast, a new sign affixed to the future home of the Old Forester Distillery was unveiled.

Now, we just have to wait two years — which, of course, is the time it takes straight bourbon to legally age in a barrel — for the finished product. As we watch the construction transform the space, no doubt George Garvin Brown will be keeping a keen eye on operations from his post across the street.

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."