Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is fond of using the term “Bourbonism” to refer to the growing interest in Bourbon tourism. Today this is not just the visits to the distilleries to see where Bourbon is made, but also the connected interest in food and cocktails. There are a growing number of “Bourbon Bars” in the city that are promoted by being on the Urban Bourbon Trail. There are small business such as Bourbon Barrel Foods which uses Bourbon and Bourbon barrels to flavor foods as well as businesses such as Drunk Wood which crafts items out of used Bourbon barrels and staves. There is also the increased sales of bottles in liquor stores throughout the state that has profited from the growing tourism as visitors always take a bottle or two home with them. Indeed Bourbonism is thriving and bring a lot of economic growth to the city as a result. It took about 150 to get Bourbon tourism to thrive in Kentucky.
Back in 1870 when E.H. Taylor, Jr. purchased and re-built the OFC distillery in Frankfort, he had visitors in mind. He built the distillery to be attractive so as to attract visitors. It was his hope that people would come to see his distillery and then purchase his whiskey. It was a rough decade for Taylor and he never quite achieved his goals at OFC. He went bankrupt and sold the distillery to the firm of Gregory and Stagg, wholesalers in the liquor industry based in St. Louis, and they did not share his vision. He started again in the distilling business in the mid-1880s and started over with his idea of a distillery that would attract visitors. The Old Taylor distillery in Millville was re-shaped into a very European looking location. The distillery was a castle with a sunken garden and a peristyle over the spring that fed the distillery its water for making Bourbon. He had a train station at the distillery where visitors could easily come to visit. He would hosts meetings of sales people and wholesale merchants at the distillery and would often host barbeques at Old Taylor.
Taylor’s efforts at Bourbon tourism died with prohibition and it would take two decades after repeal for the idea to catch on again. This time it was at Maker’s Mark down in Marion County. T.W. Samuels followed Taylor’s example in that he purchased an old distillery and started sprucing it up to look good to the public. He added a visitor center and encouraged people to come see the distillery that made their favorite Bourbon. Over time they added the Maker’s Mark Ambassador program and had many events at the distillery for this group of fans. There were a few other distilleries that added visitor centers to their distilleries and offered tours, but not many. It took until the last decade of the 20th century for Bourbon tourism to become a standard part of owning a distillery in Kentucky.
In the 1990s the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was created in Bardstown. This event attracted visitors to their town but it also attracted tourist to the distilleries. Most distilleries were not equipped to handle tourists but did their best to accommodate visitors. The thing that caught many distilleries off guard was that people started showing up at the distilleries at other times of the year asking for tours. This interest caused the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to create the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” and encouraged its members to build visitor centers and have tours. It was a success and the number of people coming to visit the distilleries and have their passport stamped has increased every year. The KDA has since added a “Craft Distillery Trail” to promote the smaller distilleries that have opened in the 21st century.
Bourbon Tourism does not stop with just distillery tours. Besides the efforts in Louisville with the Urban Bourbon Trail, other cities and town are working to showcase their own bars and restaurants. There are also tours of cooperages in Louisville and Lebanon. Even cemeteries are seeing an increased number of visitors as people come to see where the people who created their favorite brands are interred. Finally there are a growing number of tour agencies such as Mint Julep Tours that are catering to the growing number of tourists wanting to visit all of these attractions. It has taken about 150 years, but Kentucky finally has a thriving Bourbon Tourism economy.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl