By Richard Thomas
Almost a century before Louisville, Kentucky became the Derby City it was the Bourbon City, and for as long as Louisville has been America’s bourbon town, it has also been the hometown of Evan Williams. That little piece of historical fact makes it very appropriate that the first of what will eventually be a handful of tourist-oriented micro-distilleries on Louisville’s old Whiskey Row is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
About twenty years ago, I began thinking of museums as following two models: the classic style, presenting lots of stuff with a minimum of description; and the educational experience style, presenting some stuff with a greater emphasis on storytelling. The Evan Williams Experience is a very modern example of the latter, and so well done I am going to suggest to some of my old colleagues at The Smithsonian that they visit for inspiration before updating their exhibits.
The museum weaves the story of Evan Williams bourbon, which starts with its namesake, a Welsh immigrant who mixed collecting wharf duties with whiskey-making in frontier Kentucky. From there the name became a brand, and the brand had to survive the tribulations of America’s most poorly conceived experiment in social engineering, Prohibition.
At the center lies what so many whiskey fans come to Kentucky to see: a working distillery. It is small, but contrary to some assertions, the brightly polished copper is not just for show. The whiskey made in the museum is barreled and trucked off to Heaven Hill warehouses, so we might just see Evan Williams Experience limited editions on the market several years down the road.
The visit winds down with a stop in a 1960s, “Mad Men-themed” faux bar for a tasting, and then out to the well-stocked gift shop. While not a stop at a big distillery where your favorite tipple is actually made, the Evan Williams Experience offers a good primer on bourbon-making on thoroughly approachable terms with a little Kentucky history mixed in for good measure, and right in the middle of downtown Louisville. And despite the whiskey theme, it’s highly suitable as a kids’ destination.
As Kentucky’s largest city and the longtime hub of its bourbon industry, Louisville serves as the base for bourbon tourism, and bourbon tourism is booming. Yet as many Louisville business owners have complained for years, visitors hitting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries in Bardstown, Lawrenceburg, or Frankfort get liquored up after two or three stops, come back smashed, and then forget all about their dinner reservations or show tickets.
What Louisville has long needed was a downtown bourbon destination, and as both a museum and a fully functioning micro-distillery, Evan Williams provides it. Diehards might skip it in favor of heading out to the big distilleries, which could even include the parent company’s own Bernheim facility in outer Louisville. That would be a mistake, because this place is a must-see for the casually curious and knowledgeable enthusiast alike.