Friday, March 1, 2019

The New Michter's Is a Study in Persistence


The Fort Nelson Building on Louisville's Main Street, built in the 1870s, is now the Michter's visitors center 
Fort Nelson is literally where Louisville began. Built in 1781, it was an actual fort for American troops under the command of George Rogers Clark, who were there to secure the Ohio River and protect the tiny settlement of Louisville from Native American and British attacks. It was named after Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., as Kentucky was then still part of Virginia.

After the fort came the city and in about 1870, an ornate, new structure arose on part of the old fort site. It even took the old fort's name. This was Louisville's original 'Whiskey Row.' Distilleries were out in the country but Whiskey Row was where the companies had their offices, sales rooms, and warehouses. If, like the Fort Nelson, your building was on the north side of Main, you could simply roll barrels out your back door, down to the river bank where paddlewheel steamers awaited.

The buildings in this district tended to be utilitarian. Occupying a corner lot, Fort Nelson's builders set out to be a bit more grand, with pillars and arches and a mighty turret.

In the late 20th century, most of the neighborhood became run down. Many of the buildings stood empty for years. Fort Nelson was one of them. As the neighborhood began its revival in the 1980s, many uses for the Fort Nelson were proposed. A local coffee roaster wanted to put a coffee museum there, but wound up donating the building to the city instead.

Fast forward to 2011. Michter's comes to town with a big announcement. They are bringing their New York-based bourbon business to Kentucky. With much fanfare they announce that they have purchased the Fort Nelson Building, which they intend to restore as their brand's 'home place.' The facility will include all the accoutrements of a whiskey brand visitors center, including a small distillery. They expected to have it open by spring of 2013, becoming the first distillery to return to downtown.

It was not to be. When they really got into it, they discovered that the building was structurally unsound. The schedule was immediately blown. So was the budget. Michter's moved forward with their production-scale facility in Shively, in the neighborhood that took the name 'Whiskey Row' after Prohibition because most of the companies built their new distilleries there. And they tried to figure out what to do with Fort Nelson.

They intended the renovation to be done to National Registry standards, so they threw out the budget and the timeline and started over. In the meantime, Heaven Hill became the first new downtown distillery, followed by Kentucky Peerless and Angel's Envy. Jim Beam opened their Urban Stillhouse. Even Rabbit Hole got there before Michter's did. Michter's began distilling in Shively in August of 2015, but they were still plugging away at Fort Nelson.

Michter's Fort Nelson opened to the public in February to much acclaim. I haven't been yet, but by all accounts their persistence paid off. They took their time and did it right; a beautiful job. Lew Bryson writes about it in The Daily Beast here. For more about the site history go here and here. For some of my past posts on the subject, go here, here, and here.

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