Evan Williams Experience is Like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for Grown-ups

Evan Williams
Evan Williams

All photos by Cynthia Bard Mayes.

Everyone knows most of the world’s bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, but Louisville had fallen way behind in terms of bourbon tourist points. The state’s “

Bourbon Trail

,” a group of distillery attractions around the northeast part of the state, drew more than half a million visitors

 last year;

 Louisville, however, was left out.

But there’s a new addition to the Bourbon Trail – the 

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

 – and it lives in the heart of Louisville’s downtown, just a block south from where the legendary distiller’s first still was located back in the 1790s.

In addition, Michter’s and Angel’s Envy have planned distillery tours in the works for the area that used to be called Louisville’s “Whiskey Row,” and micro-distilleries are joining the movement. It doesn’t hurt that the city’s mayor, Greg Fischer, has formed a task force hell-bent on making Louisville an all-out, food-and-dining tourism destination.


But for now, what Louisville has is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. I took the tour recently, and found it to be sort of a Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for adults. As soon as you walk into the place, you’re greeted by a giant, sculpted rocks glass, with the nose of a “bottle” pouring “bourbon” into it. The bottle is a five-stories-high monstrosity that can be seen from the street as a sort of companion to the giant Louisville Slugger bat a couple of blocks away.

In the lobby is plenty of historical info, a mural of Mr. Williams himself, and information about the Bourbon Trail. But the tour itself was not what I expected.

It begins with a video, which takes the audience into a 1790s town meeting at which the town council appoints Williams to a high position in the port city. It continues then into a fascinating recreation of walking along Louisville’s main street in the area. On the wall to your right is a re-creation of what Louisville looked like at the time, with animated actors doing casual chores around the buildings, and on the left a view of the river, as the actors (again, this is projected onto the walls), acting out a scene of Williams adding a third still to his operation.

old timey Louisville model
old timey Louisville model

Next you’re escorted inside a replica of Williams’ small distillery and the actors act out a scene meant to inform the audience of not just how whiskey was distilled then, but its hazards, crude methods and, of course, the Williams dedication to making the best bourbon around (hey, I fully expected there to be a commercial in there).

The tour makes its way through time, leading us into Prohibition and small, walk-through replicas of how Louisville’s Main Street looked through the ensuing two centuries, and finally culminating in a bourbon tasting, where tourists first engage in a little exercise of opening up the senses, and then tasting two different bourbons: Larceny, a wheated bourbon, and an Evan Williams small batch rye barreled in 2003.

Along the way, you also get a quick lesson in how bourbon is made today, as well as an up-close look at the on-site artisanal distillery in action, including a bird’s eye view of the bubbling mash.

Of course, it culminates in a trip to the on-site gift store where one can buy bourbon, shirts and hats, bourbon-related products and the like. I myself snagged two bottles of Evan Williams bourbon hot sauce, which was available for tasting. The bourbon was good too, but I’ll at the very least go back for that hot sauce.

Anyway, I got my Bourbon Trail passport while there and got the first “stamp.” The other destinations to fill out your passport are all within about an hour and a half’s drive from Louisville and help make up what is not only a tasty but fast-growing tourist attraction.

Evan Williams Still
Evan Williams Still

The other Kentucky Bourbon Trail destinations in and around Louisville include (visit the sites for updated hours and tour info):

Four Roses Distillery

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center

Jim Beam American Stillhouse

Maker’s Mark Distillery

Town Branch Distillery

Wild Turkey Distillery

Woodford Reserve Distillery

Those are some mouth-watering destinations; I can hardly wait to fill out the rest of my passport!