Thursday, September 1, 2022

About That Whiskey Warehouse Demolished Yesterday


The Nelson Distillery Warehouse, Louisville, looking east from Lexington Road. (Demolished 8/31/2022.)

As reported by, the Nelson Distillery Warehouse at Louisville's Distillery Commons complex is being demolished after an emergency order labeled it 'unsafe.' The order said it was in "imminent danger" of failing or collapsing. 

A red brick structure on a limestone foundation, it was built as a whiskey maturation warehouse in 1895. Empty and unused for 50 years, it sat at a very prominent intersection mere feet from Lexington Road, a major route between downtown and Louisville's residential east side. What was 'imminent' was the desire of a developer to build condos there.

The building was unquestionably in bad shape. Many maturation warehouses in Kentucky sat empty during the last quarter of the 20th century, when bourbon sales were in the doldrums. As things began to improve in the early aughts, producers identified all available existing warehouses, acquired and renovated them as needed, and put them back into service. Some required extensive renovation. In Frankfort, Buffalo Trace took a former warehouse that had been converted into a state office building and turned it back into a maturation warehouse. 

After all the existing warehouses were brought back, new construction began. The need for maturation facilities continues to grow.

So why wasn't the Nelson Warehouse among the restorations? The condition of the building, after decades of neglect, is only one of the reasons. Masonry warehouses generally are not favored by producers, nor are warehouses in urban areas, where neighbors will fuss about Baudoinia compniacensis, the 'whiskey fungus.' A maturation warehouse is mostly wood and high-proof alcohol, so it is kind of flammable. You don't want that too close to people.

The preference now is for steel buildings in remote, rural areas. There is also a preference for doing everything--distilling, maturation, and bottling--at one site. A lone maturation warehouse, at that location, makes no sense.

There were many distilleries in that neighborhood after about 1860. The Nelson Warehouse was one of the last pieces of what became a mammoth complex of distilleries and related enterprises, all based around Beargrass Creek, a few miles upstream from its confluence with the Ohio River. The complex ultimately became part of the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, the Kentucky arm of the Whiskey Trust. It was a major whiskey producer until Prohibition.

Like most Trust distilleries, the complex at Payne and Lexington made vast quantities of commodity whiskey, sold under many different brand names. It was huge. The largest maturation warehouse ever built was there. It held 145,000 barrels. The Nelson Warehouse held about 40,000.

Two former warehouses and other buildings from the distillery complex remain as Distillery Commons, a mixed-use development. The adjacent Irish Hill residential neighborhood is still largely intact. The modest housing there was originally built for distillery workers, who numbered in the thousands. The site's other neighbor is Cave Hill Cemetery.

After Prohibition, under the ownership of National Distillers, no distillation was done there but the site was a major maturation, bottling, and distribution facility, primarily for National's Old Grand-Dad bourbon brand. When the decision was made to close the plant, the bottling house continued to operate until the last warehouse was empty. That happened in 1974.

In 1979, Ray Schuhmann bought the property and began the development of Distillery Commons. Schuhmann's main business was commercial photography and one of his clients was General Electric, which has its major appliances factory in Louisville. The vast, empty spaces in the distillery buildings allowed him to build photography sets to show appliances like ovens, refrigerators, washers, and dryers in realistic settings. Because there was so much space he could just leave the sets in place. Another part of the complex was redeveloped into a recording studio. Another part became an entertainment venue. The Nelson Warehouse stood empty at the easternmost point of the complex, a 45° angle formed by the intersection of Payne Street and Lexington Road, partially hidden by some trees and a billboard.

No one ever found a use for it.

There was a proposal, drafted in 2020, to give the Nelson Warehouse official landmark designation. 

The impracticality and undesirability of returning the structure to service as a maturation warehouse probably doomed it. Everything else in the complex was either restored and repurposed, or demolished and replaced, many years ago. The Nelson Warehouse only stood there like it did for as long as it did because no one wanted it or the land under it badly enough to do anything about it. Until now.


Tom Johnson said...

I used to work in Distillery Commons -- in the building up Lexington from the one being demolished. It was a great place. We made TV shows there and my second floor office looked over Lexington into a rail car junkyard that reeked of diesel and tar bleeding slowly into Beargrass Creek and, eventually, the Ohio River.

When we were thinking about building-out studio space, we looked at the corner building. It was a disaster, filled to knee-deep in some places with dead pigeons and even given its heavy construction, terrifyingly creaky. We did not stay long or give the place a second thought.

Ray Schuman saved a couple of big pieces of that old distillery. It couldn't have been easy, and I'm sure he went through lean years where he must have been close to giving up. But he loved those old buildings and believed in their potential, and if this is in a way sad it's also part of the renovation of that whole neighborhood. It has gone from a literal junkyard to a residential area where hundreds of people have homes, with a gradeschool and coffee shop and live music hall that lights-up every weekend. And the environmentally disastrous runoff has been largely stopped.

So: sentiment, sure, But in this case I think "progress" is really progress.

Sam Komlenic said...

That's a great take, Tom. Thanks!