Bourbon’s Bones

For Bourbon Heritage Month, a Louisville native reflects on the remnants of the city's whiskey landscape


Brown-Forman distillery
Brown-Forman distillery

All photos by Keith Allison.

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is a carefully cultivated and well worthwhile trip through the rolling green distilling landscape of the state’s bourbon industry. Even industrial behemoths like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey seem picturesque amid the lush hills outside of Bardstown or overlooking a bridge spanning the gulf of the Kentucky River. The recently added Craft Bourbon Trail extends the tour to the state’s newer, upstart micro-distilleries. And even though it elected not to be a part of the official trail, Buffalo Trace in the state capital of Frankfort draws innumerable visitors hoping, I assume, they might stumble across a forgotten bottle of Pappy Van Winkle somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the distillery (they won’t).

Conspicuous by its absence, however, is the state’s largest city, the one-time bourbon making epicenter of America, home still to two of the biggest producers of bourbon in the world: Louisville, the city in which I grew up (or the closest city you can get to from Centerfield, Kentucky). It is only recently, with the opening of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience serving as the first shot fired, that the mighty city on the banks of the Ohio has started to reclaim its spot in bourbon history.

Prior to Prohibition, the location of Louisville — just down the river from Cincinnati, near enough to Indianapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, and connected by water to the voraciously thirsty market in New Orleans — made the Derby City the ideal spot for conducting the business of bourbon making. The town of Shively, just to the south and west of downtown and, starting in the late 1910s, with the newly built Dixie Highway running through it, saw dozens of distilleries spring up. Downtown, Main Street became known as Whiskey Row for the proliferation of distillery offices and warehouses that called the street home.

Prohibition killed off many of these distilleries, or saw them absorbed into larger companies who had managed to obtain a coveted “medicinal” distilling license. But in 1934, with the repeal of that ignoble experiment, old distilleries reawakened and new distilleries were founded. Stitzel-Weller, Glencoe, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill — many of the heavy hitters in the business. But fortunes continued to rise and fall, and the changing character of the city brought more mergers and, in some cases, a move out of the city and into the more remote, idyllic (and less taxed) settings of rural Kentucky. By the time I started to call the city home and prowl it streets aimlessly in a second-hand car, the only functioning distilleries were Brown-Forman and Stitzel-Weller.

whiskey rowBut what distilleries they were! Monsters of red brick and metal, towering column stills reaching toward the sky. Here was no romantic setting fit for the movie they show at the beginning of distillery tours today. There were no bubbling brooks and pioneers huddled around the fire beneath a quaint old pot still. This was bourbon making on a massive scale, burly testaments to industry built upon the banks of a river whose primary function had become serving as a roadway for the building of post-War America. This was a city of bourbon in a fast growing city, the place that gave the world heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, filmmaker Tod Browning, and chicken baron Colonel Harlan Sanders.

Shively itself, a sleepy town that had been radically transformed by the rise and fall and rise and fall of the bourbon industry, became dangerous territory as the distilleries disappeared. Low income, sometimes violent, sometimes derelict, sometimes simply working class and going about the business of surviving. At times one of the hotbeds of the city’s drug trade, still today the place where, when the mayor pushed the strip clubs and porno theaters out of downtown, those businesses came to resettle. Whether its dangerous or not, it isn’t the image Kentucky projects of its bourbon industry.

To drive down Dixie Highway now, from Valley Station where my grandparents lived, to Shively and downtown Louisville is to witness a dramatically diverse landscape dotted with the bones of the bourbon industry. Old distilleries and rickhouses — some abandoned, some converted to other uses — line Dixie Highway and parallel South 7th Street. Some of the names are forgotten. Some have become revered. Glencoe, once owned by Phil Stitzel, who sold it to William Larue Weller before the two simply went into business and founded the nearby Stitzel-Weller distillery, which is now the property of beverage company powerhouse Diageo, which just converted it into the new Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience.  Four Roses, Hill and Hill, Yellowstone, the original Bernheim, Seagrams — once you start driving down side avenues, like Ralph Road and Wathen Lane and Bernheim Lane, the adventurous bourbon archaeologist will stumble across more and more remnants of the old industry.

The former Stitzel-Weller distillery
The former Stitzel-Weller distillery

Near where Dixie Highway meets West Broadway, sit two of the reigning kings of bourbon distilling. Brown-Forman (which has another massive facility in Shively), crowned by a giant bottle of Old Forester, and across the street, Heaven Hill, which relocated to its original home in Louisville after their Bardstown stillhouse burned down. Neither is open to the public, and neither, urban and industrial as they are, really fulfills the image of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which would not dare to send more casual bourbon tourists to the still marginal streets of a Shively struggling to emerge from decades of blight and neglect.

But this is where I used to wander, not because I was at the time interested in bourbon, but because as a kid from the fields and farms of Centerfield, I was fascinated by the city. By its architecture, its nightclubs, its storied history, seedy underbelly. By the hints of danger glimpsed naively from the relative safety of my car as I wandered more or less at random through this world dotted with the skeletons of distilling, that once smelled of corn and yeast and the stuff of making whiskey on a giant scale.

While the rest of the state capitalized on bourbon history and tourism, and the throne moved to Bardstown, my city was slow on the draw. The Urban Bourbon Trail — a string of bars and restaurants with large bourbon collections — attracts visitors, mostly to historic hotels like the Brown, The Seelbach, and the Galt House, or new ventures like Proof on Main, the bar inside the quirky 21C Hotel — Louisville’s role in the founding and massive expansion of the bourbon industry remained largely unacknowledged.

Until now. Slowly but surely, the city is rumbling back to life.

Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill remain closed to the public, but Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience downtown is a lavish investment that pays homage to the namesake of Evan Williams whiskey, who built his first still in Louisville, as well as the Shapira Brothers, Louisvillians who founded Heaven Hill. Whiskey Row is in the midst of a massive renovation that has gutted the interiors (and discovered the occasional secret sex club) but maintained the facades of many historic old warehouses. There is constant talk of new distilleries being built in the city. Louisville sometimes seems confused as to how to present itself effectively, despite the abundance it has to offer, but it seems things are finally starting to fall in place, and even if the vinegar company that now distills in the old Yellowstone distillery isn’t going to start offering historic tours, and even if Brown-Forman doesn’t open the doors to let you watch them make Old stitzel-weller 2Forester and Early Times, Louisville has remembered the indispensable role it has played in bourbon. Now its time to remind everyone else.

Until then, a bourbon enthusiast who doesn’t mind getting lost, hitting an occasional dead end, attracting a few curious glances from the locals on their way to work, exploring access roads and avenues that look like you’re not allowed to be on them (you’re probably not), and perhaps drawing the occasional suspicious (but usually understanding, once you explain what a nerd you are) eye of a security guard, can exit the Watterson Expressway and take Dixie Highway north through Shively in search of the bones of the old bourbon industry.

Our own, unofficial, unmapped bourbon trail.

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