I had the opportunity to visit the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on historic Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. During the visit I had the pleasure of learning about the distillery from Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller Charlie Downs. Charlie started his distilling career 40 years ago in 1976 and was fortunate enough to learn about the industry and distillation from industry legends Parker Beam and his father Earl Beam.
“Don’t ever let anybody tell you how to drink your bourbon. You drink it how you enjoy it. And it don’t matter whose you drink, if you enjoy ours, please do enjoy it. But, you enjoy bourbon…” ~ Master Distiller Charlie Downs
Evan Williams – Kentucky’s First Commercial Distiller
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a working artisanal distillery with an immersive tourism experience and retail store celebrating the legacy of Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first commercial distiller and namesake of Heaven Hill Distilleries’ flagship Bourbon brand.
Evan Williams set up his early distillery in 1783 near what is now 5th and Main Streets in downtown Louisville—only steps away from the location of the new distillery. In his day, Williams served as an early Trustee of the City of Louisville, built the first county clerk’s office and city jail, and served on the waterfront as wharfmaster.
The Heaven Hill brand was founded 82 years ago in 1935 just a couple years after the end of Prohibition by the Shapira family, the same family that owns the business today. The Main Street building that houses the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience has been owned by the Shapiras since the 1950s. In the 50s building was used to house goods for the family’s chain of department stores, The Louisville Store. They had several stores throughout the state which all closed in the early 1990s.
Photo courtesy of University of Louisville photographic archives.
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The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Whiskey Row
The new distillery was unveiled in November 2013 by company President Max Shapira after a $10.5 million renovation. A visit to the distillery starts with a greeting from a 5 story tall pour of Evan Williams Bourbon. It seems only appropriate to do things large on Whiskey Row. On one end you have a 120′ tall 68,000 pound Louisville Slugger Bat and then a few blocks away you have a 5 story tall pour of Kentucky bourbon flowing into a 1,500 gallon rocks glass.
Master Distiller Charlie Downs Talks History, Growth & Distillation
The artisanal distillery is a fully functioning distillery that produces one barrel of bourbon a day. To put that in perspective, parent company Heaven Hill just bunged its 7.5 millionth barrel of bourbon a couple of months ago. As of the day I was there, Charlie said, “I told them I am going to catch up with them, I made 792 (barrels) as of today.”
Don’t Ever Let Anyone Tell You How to Drink Your Bourbon
“We give tours here every day and I go out and talk to the public sometimes and they’ll ask me what do I drink, how I drink it, you know and I tell them how I drink it, and I say don’t ever let anybody tell you how to drink your bourbon. You drink it how you enjoy it. And it don’t matter whose you drink, if you enjoy ours, please do enjoy it. But, you enjoy bourbon, that’s the thing out there.”
Our Day Starts at 5:30am and We’re Drinking Bourbon by 6:30am
Charlie explained that as a Master Distiller you taste a lot of bourbon throughout the day. Most people wonder what it’s like to drink bourbon all day without getting smashed. Charlie explained the way it really works.
“We start our day here at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience at 5:30 in the morning. By 6:30 we’re already drinking.” Charlie shared that one day a gentleman asked, “May I ask you a personal question? I said yes. So it’s running through my mind, what’s he going to ask. So he says, you know, we pull 60 to 80 samples everyday and we taste half that many. And all day long I will not drink an ounce of bourbon, I will not drink an ounce of whiskey all day because I’m just looking for taste and flavor. So he says, drinking all that whiskey all day, does that make your hair turn white? This guy was like Kojak on top, he was shining and I said yes sir and it will make your hair fall out too. Touché!”
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience tours and tastings average about 70,000 visitors a year. The Whiskey Row location is open Mon – Thurs, 11 am – 5:30 pm, Fri – Sat, 10 am – 6 pm and Sun, 1 pm – 5:30 pm.
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience Photo Gallery
Click any image to see full size.