Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Evan Williams Experience Is Terrific

You're in Louisville on business, or attending a convention. You have a few extra hours to enjoy something in Kentucky's largest city, but what? There are many choices: the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center, Churchill Downs, the Frazier History Museum, the Speed Art Museum.

But you're a bourbon fan. You know Louisville is the gateway to bourbon country. You'd like to have a bourbon experience. You can drink bourbon, sure. You undoubtedly will, but is there anything you can do for an hour or two in the morning or afternoon?

Since there were no distilleries that gave tours within striking distance of Louisville, the answer used to be no. Now there is one, the Evan Williams Experience, on Main Street, in downtown Louisville. Soon there could be several.

I had my Evan Williams experience a few weeks ago. I went as a regular person, not on a press tour, at about ten o'clock in the morning. The first thing I noticed was the smell. That's not real whiskey pouring from the giant bottle. The smell is coming from staves from used barrels, artfully suspended from the ceiling.

I was a tour group of one. I got a ticket ($12), read the history timeline that decorates the lobby walls, and waited comfortably in the waiting area. At the appointed time I was met by my guide, who was very professional and didn't miss a beat.

The guide's spiel is seamlessly integrated with the media show, which she controls with an inconspicuous wireless device in her hand. You start in a theater but as you go deeper into the 'experience,' it becomes three dimensional. You're right there, in the late 18th century, on the riverfront, and in Evan William's frontier distillery.

From there you learn the bourbon-making process, at the end of which there is a dramatic reveal of the working micro-distillery. The distillery is gorgeous and bigger than I expected. As the tour moves on, you climb a flight of stairs that gives you an overhead view into a fermenter and of the entire operation. They thought this thing through.

Upstairs is a 'street,' with facades on either side, taking you quickly through the 19th and 20th centuries. You go into one of the businesses for your tasting. One of them is called Max & Harry's Bar, a nice touch. (Max Shapira is the president of Heaven Hill and his cousin, Harry, who died recently, was vice president. They represent the second generation of the Shapira family, who own and run the company.)

You end, naturally, in the gift shop.

The building, which Heaven Hill has owned and occupied since the 40s, has three more floors. There's an event space and the rest is offices and storage.

Heaven Hill isn't the largest distilled spirits producer in Kentucky, but when it opened its Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown in 2004, it leapfrogged to the front of the pack in terms of visitor experience. With the Evan Williams Experience, they've done it again. The production standards, the creative standards, the technology, everything is first rate. It deserves comparison to Disney. It's that good.

The way bourbon and bourbon tourism have grown, easily-accessed welcome center attractions in Louisville are the next big idea. The Evan Williams Experience is a first class beginning, it sets a wonderful standard for what's to come. Soon we will have at least two more distilleries on Main Street, with Michter's and Angel's Envy. A few blocks away, on Fourth, Beam has offices now but the huge Beam logo in the window suggests there soon will be more. Diageo finally seems ready to pull the trigger on Stitzel-Weller, which is about five miles from downtown. Vendome, the still maker (about 1.5 miles from Main Street), is thinking about a visitor center, museum, and tours.

Brown-Forman, which is based in Louisville, gives tours at its cooperage (about 7 miles from Main Street), but would it dare put a Jack Daniel's Welcome Center on Main Street? Why not? Only the small-minded would think it wrong.


Anonymous said...

Chuck - when you state that you can drink bourbon, but follow that with "but is there anything you can do for an hour or two in the morning or afternoon?" . . . are you implying we can't drink bourbon for an hour or two in the morning or afternoon? Because I assure you - we can :-)

Seriously though - nice piece. I've toured the various distilleries, and wondered if this would be worth the time should I find myself in Louisville. Now I'm looking forward to the excuse just to see this!

Chuck Cowdery said...

I should have said "anything else..."

Lazer said...

Whenever I think of the personal Evan Williams experiences I've had, Disney is one of the last things that comes to mind.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review Chuck. I'm planning a trip to Louisville in October to watch my NC State Wolfpack hopefully destroy the U of L cardinals and we were looking for a bourbon experience that wouldn't require driving an hour or more outside of the city. Evan Williams looks like a winner. Now if you have any recommendations for a few good whiskey bars that would be excellent.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Start at the Silver Dollar. They're so nice, they'll even suggest other places you might like.