Betting big on bourbon: Louisville aims to stake its claim as heart of the booming industry

LOUISVILLE -- This week in Louisville, Derby fans will be betting big and buying up plenty of ultra-expensive bourbon all over the city. After all, dozens of restaurants and bars are now official stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail, which according to the rules means they must keep at least 50 brands of bourbon behind the bar.

Last Christmas, I bellied up to one of the best places in town to eat, or drink, or talk with someone who knows his bourbon. The bartender at Jack Fry's told me that sure, he keeps Pappy Van Winckle on hand -- just not in view. "It's under the bar, where we keep it until Derby time. That's the only time people are foolish enough to pay what we can charge for it."

(By people, he meant out-of-towners. Louisvillians like their Pappy, same as anyone, but they remember just a few years ago when the good stuff was easy to find -- and for under $100 a bottle.) 

A few days later, I met some friends at the Bristol Bar & Grille, a casual-but-cozy place in the city's old Highlands neighborhood that's been around for longer than I've been legally entitled to order a drink. When the waitress asked for orders, my friend ordered a Pappy 12 year old, neat. No, he called her back a few moments later, make it a 20-year. It was Christmas and he was throwing money around.

The waitress came back and inquired. "Do you want that mixed with coke?"

I relay this story to tell you something you should know. The bourbon boom in Louisville is real. There's good bourbon at more places, and in more variety, in its restaurants and bars than in any city in the world. Trust me on this. But it's also a city whose enthusiasm for bourbon is rising so quickly, that even well-known spots like the Bristol find themselves capable of both being a stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail and of hiring servers who ask a drinker if he wants his Pappy served in a class of soda pop. 

Inside that juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible truths is a warning: The Bourbon Boom is as likely to be a bubble as it is to be the Start of Something Real. Looked from that perspective, a waitress asking a diner to drink his Pappy with his coke is nothing if not an exhibition of irrational exuberance. 

Two men at a Louisville still. Image used courtesy of city of Louisville. 

And yet, there's plenty of signs that suggest smart people in Kentucky understand this risk, and working to both minimize it and to survive it should the boom turn into a bubble that can, as so many in the past, burst. 

The stakes are high that they do. Louisville's leaders are betting big that by fully embracing its bourbon heritage, it can do more than earn a place in the hearts of drinkers like me and you. They are betting that the boom in bourbon is going to shake the city free of a long period of doldrums. They are betting on booze to bring jobs, tourism and taxes.

The city's mayor is a forward-thinking former business executive. He helped invent an ice machine that turned a small business his father set him up in into a major concern. He keeps a bar full of bourbon in City Hall, one so well stocked that it would make Prince Charles ask for seconds. He also knows that the bourbon boom isn't guaranteed to last. 
“As we all know, bourbon is ‘hot’ right now,” said Mayor Greg Fischer, in releasing a report Monday about the future of the bourbon industry in Louisville. “Fortune Magazine recently said we’re in a ‘Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom.’ But while trends come and go, bourbon is a proud part of Louisville’s history, a big part of our present and, with this plan, will be an even bigger part of our future. This is our chance to increase the momentum so that Louisville and bourbon are as classically paired as Napa Valley is to wine.”

Now's the chance, he said. And Louisville better grab at it. 

The report was the work of the mayor's hand-picked committee of 60 or so advisors on how to make the city a drinks powerhouse. It was chock full of distillery types and business titans. They made six major recommendations, and one of the first was to solve what I'll call the Bristol Bourbon Blunder Problem. 

Recommendation: Create a bourbon certification and recognition system in which the hospitality industry (especially front-line servers and bartenders) would become certified bourbon experts. The goal is for every hospitality employee to know the history of bourbon and be able to expertly discuss brands with customers. The Filson Club will be a key partner in this effort because it already has the Bourbon Academy. Emphasis theirs.

That might not sound like a big deal, but it does show that someone at the city, or on the panel anyway, is listening. I brought the Bristol problem up in March, when I toured Maker's Mark distillery with chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., and it struck a nerve then. I'm glad he helped see that it was addressed in the report. 

Why does it matter? Louisville woke up a few years ago and realized that bourbon was back, and yet not one in 100 bourbon fans who could cite the pedigree of any seven of the distilleries in Kentucky knew that Louisville had played an important role in birthing the bourbon industry.

In short, it's heritage had disappeared from the common knowledge of even Louisvillians, who believed like everyone else that the bourbon industry started, or started to get serious anyway, in Bardstown and its environs just before and after Prohibition. 

But the state's largest city played an enormous role in the development of bourbon back from the frontier days -- it was founded in 1778, and stills were being licensed just a few years later. Heck, by 1783, my own ancestor James Patten would sell 660 acres of land to a distiller named Marsham Beshears, for the price of 165 gallons of whiskey.

By the 19th Century, scores of offices for distilleries stood one after another along the city's famous Whiskey Row. During Prohibition, 10 distilleries in America were licensed to keep making, and selling, whiskey. For medicinal purposes, you understand. One of them was Brown Forman, which is still controlled by the family who founded it. (Last month, I asked master distiller Chris Morris how the company got so lucky, when so many others nearby had not. His answer: Despite, years of effort to find out, the reason remains a mystery.

The last few years have seen Louisville move fast to rectify that historical oversight. The distillery tours -- first offered by Maker's Mark, and with others soon following -- will always be the main draw for bourbon fans seeking to get close to the source. But Louisville now boasts scores of locations to drink quality bourbon and -- in just the past year or so -- has begun opening tasting rooms and, in some cases, small distilling operations by the giant bourbon companies. The Evan Williams Experience, put on by Heaven Hill, is not to be missed. More facilities are opening this year, and more are planned for further down the road. 

There is a reason for all this: Bourbon means bucks. In 2012 alone, distilleries spent $50 million on capital projects in Louisville, where the report issued Monday says some 4,200 people are employed by the bourbon industry. The city's bourbon industry generates some $42 million in tax revenue, the report says. 

What the recommendations in the report are really, then, is proof that the city knows its chance to capitalize on its heritage is fleeting. Bourbon isn't going anywhere, but the boom we're seeing today doesn't have to last. The industry has certainly seen its share of booms and busts over the long history. What Louisville is hoping to do is to cement its place as the beating heart of the industry, a place where it's easy to find good bourbon -- and to find servers who know the good stuff isn't ever going to look good in a class of Coca Cola. 

(Editor's note: Thanks to the city of Louisville, office of the mayor, for use of images above, and to graphic designer Priscilla Daffin for her timeline (top) of the history of Bourbon in Louisville.)