In 1919, almost a century ago, the United States passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, a law best known as Prohibition. During that same year, Brown-Forman, parent company to Old Forester Bourbon vacated its offices and whiskey warehouses at 117 and 119 W. Main Street in Louisville, Kentucky. Since the 1870s, this stretch of Main Street was commonly known as “Whiskey Row,” a name it earned by being home to 19 distillers, wholesalers, and other whiskey-related businesses. When Prohibition took effect in 1920, Whiskey Row quickly dried up.
Today, on National Bourbon Day, that’s all about to change as we celebrate the return and grand opening of the new Old Forester Distillery and visitor destination on Whiskey Row. The new Old Forester Distillery includes fermentation, distilling, barrel making including toasting, charing, filling and dumping, warehousing and bottling. The new distillery is expected to produce 100,000 cases of bourbon a year, allowing the company to double its current production levels.
The Long Road Back to Whiskey Row
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The return of Old Forester Distillery to Whiskey Row was not and easy one. There were many bumps and curves along the road. The beginning of the end started with Prohibition. Old Forester was one of six distilleries allowed to sell spirits during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. (I could use a prescription for some Birthday Bourbon right about now.) They were allowed to sell spirits but not make it. As supplies of whiskey started to run dry the government granted medicinal makers a short reprieve. On December 7, 1929, the government declared a Distiller’s Holiday that allowed distilleries to fire up their stills for 100 days to make more medicine. Thankfully, four years later on December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment ended the failed experiment and Prohibition was repealed and distilleries were back in business.
It’s hard to imagine with today’s bourbon boom but, in the 70s and 80s bourbon whiskey and brown spirits fell out of favor for clear spirits like vodka. Inventories of bourbon bottles and barrels were piling up everywhere collecting dust. Those were the dark days for whiskey makers until the return of brown spirits in the 90s. As bourbon returned to favor the big whiskey makers cautiously starting ramping up production again. In the mid-2000s we also started to see the rise of craft spirits makers as people’s desire for locally made products took hold, the mixologist title was revived and many restrictive Prohibition era laws slowly started to be peeled back.
The Modern Bourbon Boom
Fast forward to today and oh my how things have changed. It’s not uncommon to read about bourbon shortages, barrel shortages or bourbon brand allocations. A whole new variety of bourbons, single barrels, small batches, custom grain mashbills, barrel finishes and more are feeding today’s bourbon frenzy.
In addition to the boom in bourbon consumption is the growth in distillery tourism. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association reported a record number of visitors to the world-famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The association said that visitors to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and companion Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour has exceeded 1 million visitors in 2017, a 12% increase from the previous year. The number of visitors is up an astonishing 317% in the last 10 years.
It should be pointed out that the growth in distilled spirits goes well beyond the borders of Kentucky with more than 1,500 distilleries now operating across the country. In fact, there is practically a one new distillery opening every day across the United States. And the growth is not just in bourbon but is made up of a variety of spirits like vodka, gin, brandy, absinthe, aquavit and more.
The New Old Forester Distillery Celebrates its Grand Opening
In September 2014 Brown-Forman announced they were going to make a major commitment to their original brand, Old Forester Bourbon. They brought in 5th Generation Brown Family Member Campbell Brown to be President and Managing Director of Old Forester and announced they were returning to their roots on Whiskey Row to build a new distillery and tourist destination. The address of that project was at the historic 117 and 119 West Main Street address. Eight short months later in May 2015 the company announced they had upped their planned investment in the project to $45 million. And as Campbell Brown commented last week, “They spent every penny.” And I can tell you first hand, it shows, the place is fabulous!
The new Old Forester Distillery is headed by a team including Campbell Brown, Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris, Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan and Distillery Manager Juan Merizalde Carrillo and Homeplace Manager Erik Brown.
A Look Inside the Old Forester Distillery
The new homeplace and distillery is a showplace. As you enter the building you’ll see the familiar Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey name placed on the historic brick, the modern glass and on multiple bottles of vintage bottles of bourbon.
A tour introduces guests to the history of the brand beginning with multiple interactive touch screens followed by a fast paced movie. As the movie ends, the wall opens up and visitors walk into the working distillery. The mashing and cooking of the corn, rye and malted barley actually takes place down the road at the company’s larger distillation facility. It’s then shipped to the Whiskey Row location for its five days of fermentation. From there it goes into the beer well before it makes its way to the column still.
Big Reveal No. 1 – The 44’ Foot Tall Copper Column Still
As the tour continues, visitors move from the fermentation room to board an elevator. As the elevator ascends, guests are treated to a brightly lit Vendome Copper & Brass Works all copper doubler. The ride continues and you pass inches away from the Vendome 4,700 lb. 44′ tall, 24″ in diameter copper column still with 22 plates.From there guest walk by the bottling line where labels are applied, bottles are filled, corked and sealed.
Big Reveal No. 2 – Push the Button, Fire Up a 53 Gallon Bourbon Barrel
Brown-Forman is one of the only large scale distillers that actually owns its own cooperage. The company purchased the Bluegrass Cooperage company in 1945 and has been making their own barrels ever since. They took their barrel making expertise and applied it to their new distillery in a fashion that is sure to please its visitors and will definitely be plastered all over fans social media pages.
One lucky distillery visitor per hour gets the chance to push the big button. Pushing the button raises a new toasted oak barrel and places it directly in the center of a station where the barrel gets fired and charred for approximately 45 seconds. It’s really quite a moment for visitors. Once the fire is extinguished you can see the smoke billowing up the chimney. This experience fires up all the senses; the eyes, the ears, and the nose. It also fires up memories as visitors start to talk about days around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and the smell of fresh baked pies at Grandma’s house. The distillery will be making about 14 barrels per day.
Big Reveal No. 3 – The Barrel Warehouse
On the backside of the distillery is a five story barrel warehouse. It’s pretty impressive when you walk in to see barrel ricks running from the basement to the buildings roofline. The warehouse has a few barrels in there now and will soon be filled with up to 900 barrels. Unlike traditional ricks made of wood, this warehouse is a bit more of an urban design with its steel black barrel racks. It takes a lot of strength to hold each of those 550 lb. barrels. The company says future single barrel picks will take place inside this new facility.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the bourbon. We won’t know how that turns out for at least four years but based on everything they thought about inside the distillery we expect the bourbon to come out of the barrels will be the typical amber spirit that Old Forester fans have come to appreciate.
The Old Forester Distillery is open for public tours starting June 15, 2018.