The Old Forester Distillery occupies the same space the company used as a headquarters before Prohibition. The new distillery opens to the public for tours on June 15.
The distillery occupies two connected building fronts, 117 and 119 Main Street. Louisville's Whiskey Row survived a fire in 2015, which Old Forester president Campbell Brown jokes, "created some engineering opportunities."
The centerpiece of the distillery is its 44-foot-tall copper column still, manufactured by Louisville neighbors Vendome.
The column still is capable of a maximum annual production of 100,000 gallons and weighs in at 4,700 pounds with a 24-inch diameter.
During a tour, visitors ride an elevator several stories up directly behind the still, getting a unique look at its sheer size on the way.
At the front, visitors are welcomed by the column still and a retail shop on the ground floor. The glass-walled elevator is seen behind the still.
Brown leads a tour of his family and company's new home. "This was a real commitment," he says of the construction project. "We're used to building stuff like this on acres and acres of land." Instead, Old Forester had to work within the confines of downtown Louisville.
Tours showcase the entire aspect of whiskey production, beginning with fermentation. The distillery has four 4,000-gallon fermenters onsite.
Fermentation at the distillery lasts up to five days, a relatively long period for bourbon. Longer fermentation produces additional esters, providing fruity flavors and aromas.
"The design is to put the consumer in the spirit," Brown says. Visitors learn about each stage of the process in step-by-step fashion, gaining an understanding of the whole production picture.
Brown-Forman operates a separate large-scale cooperage, and uniquely added a functioning cooperage to the Old Forester Distillery. Onsite barrel production will be 15 barrels per day.
Visitors entering the cooperage see the stacks of American white oak staves used in construction of new bourbon barrels. The cooperage is set up with more than half a dozen stations showcasing each phase of barrel construction.
Barrels are charred in the cooperage with bursts of flame. Old Forester says it's the only distillery that's constructing and charring barrels in the same physical building where distillation occurs, a difficult engineering and safety feat to accomplish.
The level of charring is controlled by altering time and intensity of the fire. Brown-Forman toasts its barrels in addition to charring them, using assorted combinations of toasting and charring in tandem to achieve unique flavor profiles.
A portion of the whiskey produced at the distillery will be matured in the onsite warehouse. Excess production will be sent to other Brown-Forman warehouses in neighboring Shively, Ky.
The onsite warehouse can hold between 850 and 900 barrels.
The distillery will conduct a daily ceremony outside its main entrance involving a barrel delivery truck, blue carpet and drummers. "It's another great way to attract people," Brown says.
Old Forester's onsite warehouse will host small groups for barrel selection. Visitors purchasing a barrel can taste through multiple barrel offerings in the midst of the warehouse. Brown also foresees small events and celebrations, such as bachelor parties, with tastings on an elevated platform within the warehouse.
The distillery showcases several tasting and event rooms, including the Atherton Room, capable of hosting hands-on programs such as cocktail classes.
A wood-paneled tasting room is evocative of bourbon barrels and is set up with a whiskey flight including Old Forester's Statesman, made in conjunction with the movie ‘Kingsman 2’.
The rooftop of the building can be used for public and private events, including full-service dining, while offering great views of the surrounding city.
Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan leads a group through a mint julep cocktail class. "You can't over-mint," she says, while adding more fresh mint to her glass.
Visitors participating in a cocktail class can taste a few whiskeys before deciding on which offering to use in the drink.
"The biggest key is dilution," Zykan says of her No. 1 tip for achieving the perfect julep. Additionally, she warns that while you can't over-mint, you can over-muddle, so aim not to break up the mint.
Brown and Zykan teamed up for the creation of Old Forester's new President's Choice, a single barrel whiskey exclusively available at the distillery and select Kentucky stores. It's another historic nod by the company, which boasts a tradition of the distillery's president offering his choice picks, which dates back nearly 130 years.
The distillery showcases its history in a variety of ways, including with a lineup of vintage bottles and decanters. Brown talks through several of his favorites with visitors, while sharing stories of his great, great grandfather working in the very same building.
The distillery houses its own operational bottling line. Years down the road, whiskey that began its life with fermentation in the same building (before years spent maturing in casks made onsite) can end its journey in the bottle.
A full range of the brand's products are available for purchase at the distillery's shop. The full-service George's Bar, so named for founder George Garvin Brown, will soon be complete.
Old Forester's Birthday Bourbon, a small, prized annual release, will be available for purchase at the distillery in limited quantities.
The lobby pays homage to the brand's history with a variety of informative displays, old photographs and vintage bottles.
Vintage advertisements showcase the brand's lengthy history, including its ties to Louisville, its association with the mint julep, and some of the vintage bottle designs seen on display elsewhere.
A vintage photograph showcases Brown-Forman's old home on Whiskey Row. Of 89 bourbon companies which used to dominate the area, Brown-Forman is the only one that has been in continuous operation since the pre-Prohibition days.
Much has changed for whiskey and for Louisville since that era, and Old Forester's new distillery brings that history full circle.