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Louisville is talking a lot about Whiskey Row these days. It is being transformed into an actual distilling center along Louisville’s waterfront. The are several distilleries open and many more to come. At this time Copper & Kings, Angel’s Envy, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Kentucky Peerless are all along the Main Street corridor with Jim Beam having a secondary distillation nearby at Fourth Street Live. Michter’s and Old Forester will be opening their doors on Main Street within the next two years and Rabbit Hole will be opening on Market soon after that. This is the future of “Whiskey Row” but not its past.
Louisville has been a center of transportation for the State of Kentucky since statehood. River traffic had to stop at the Falls of the Ohio and portage their goods around the falls before heading down river to markets in St. Louis and New Orleans. This remained true even after the building of the Portland Canal around the falls and the growth of steam powered riverboats on the Ohio River. The bottleneck in the trip remained the Falls of the Ohio and Louisville became an important trade city on the river. As the demand for Kentucky whiskey grew, spirits merchants and distillers began to open shop in Louisville to ease transportation of goods to market. Their shops tended to be on Main Street between about Oak and 10th Street, but also on Water Street to the north and Market Street to the south and the connecting roads in between. This area quickly became known as “Whiskey Row”.
Whiskey Row was close to the river because that is where the steamboats were. The whole point of having a presence on whiskey row was to be near the river. The river made shipping barrels to markets possible and also made visits by potential customers easier. It was much easier for a distillery in Bardstown or Woodford County to have an office in Louisville to handle such visitors than to try to get these people out to the distillery by horseback or carriage. By the 1850s there were over 30 such business on Louisville’s Whiskey Row.
In the 1850s the railroad came to Louisville. The L&N railroad would connect the city to markets in the South and the new bridge would allow trains into the markets of the north such as Chicago. Whiskey Row actually grew as this new mode of transportation became available. There was the period during the Civil War when this growth stagnated but in the years following the war Whiskey Row grew. The distilleries had offices in the city because it was still easier to do business here than at the rural distillery. The railroad connected many of these distilleries and this made getting barrels to market easier, but it was still better to do much of the marketing and organizational business in Louisville so Whiskey Row continued to grow.
Up until the late 1880s the barrel was still the major package in which distillers sold their whiskey. Barrels are relatively easy to move compared to crates because they do roll. However they are bulky and heavy. Shipping to individual customers was not an easy thing The barrel had to be loaded on the train and then the customer had to send a wagon to pick up the barrel at the train station. The barrel was heavy and had to be rolled up ramps into the wagon and then often man handled into a position of height behind a sales counter or bar. The customer would then come in and purchase the whiskey straight from the barrel to fill their flask or jug. This changed in the late 1880s as machine blown glass bottles made bottling whiskey profitable.
Glass bottles did not have an immediate effect on Whiskey row. Distilleries were still shipping barrels of whiskey as well as cases of bottled whiskey to customers. It was the growth of another technology in the early 20th century in combination with prohibition that would spell the end of Louisville’s Whiskey Row. That technology is the automobile and the road system that made them possible.
Prohibition closed down the distilleries and they in turn closed their offices in Louisville and elsewhere. In the thirteen long years of prohibition the road system in the nation improved and grew, supporting the growing number of automobiles and trucks. By the end of prohibition it was no longer important to be in Louisville because trucks could ship the cases of whiskey directly to markets and cars could bring visitors straight to the distillery in a short amount of time and in greater comfort. There was no longer a reason to open an office along the river as riverboats were becoming uneconomical for transportation of goods. River transport became mostly bulk items like coal and grain. Whiskey Row was dead and not revived until the growth of Bourbon Tourism in the 21st century.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl