LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Brown-Forman Corp.’s $45 million investment to build a working distillery in the heart of downtown Louisville is not only about paying homage to the company’s history on Whiskey Row, but catapulting its original bourbon brand, Old Forester.
Touted as America’s first bottled bourbon, Old Forester has doubled in sales since 2010, according to company statistics, but the brand remains a negligible fraction of Brown-Forman’s business, which is dominated by Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.
Campbell Brown, a member of the family that controls the Louisville company and the president of Old Forester, said Brown-Forman envisions a five-fold increase in sales of the brand, which were about 200,000 nine-liter cases in the year ended April 30.
“I can assure you that they didn’t invest $45 million into a brand that does 200,000 cases,” Brown said in an interview Thursday. “They want this brand to be in the million-case range. That’s the goal, to make sure we are elevating the visibility of Old Forester.”
Brown-Forman's main bourbon brand is the premium-priced Woodford Reserve, which has more than three times the volume of Old Forester. But both brands are dwarfed by Jack Daniels, the company's best-selling product.
The Old Forester Distillery, which officially opened Thursday at 117 and 119 E. Main Street, has been in the works for three years in the block dubbed Whiskey Row.
George Garvin Brown, who founded Brown-Forman in 1870, used the building as the company’s office from 1882-1919, just before prohibition. All that remains from the original structure is the Main Street-facing façade.
The distillery is expected to produce about 100,000 cases a year – roughly 50 percent of Old Forester’s current sales volume, Campbell said.
The distillery offers a sleek tourist experience, including a hallway encased in charred oak planks – like being in the middle of an aging barrel – and a 44-foot-tall copper still that runs up the center of the building from the lobby.
It includes nearly every phase of making and aging bourbon, save for the grain mash being cooked at the company’s larger distillery in Shively and trucked downtown to be fermented.
There’s a small cooperage to demonstrate the barrel-making process, a rickhouse that can store 900 aging barrels and a bottling line.
Brown-Forman had to make sacrifices to cram a distillery into a mostly vertical space in the heart of downtown.
Brown-Forman had to make sacrifices to put a real @oldforester distillery in downtown Lou. For one, the mash has to be trucked in and piped into the fermenting tanks. Then, they have to truck filled barrels from front of building around the block to back to load into rickhouse pic.twitter.com/j4OiVcb4Dn— Chris Otts (@christopherotts) June 14, 2018
Barrels, once filled, can’t be moved within the facility to the rickhouse to begin aging; instead, they will be loaded into a truck parked on Main Street and driven around the block to the back entrance of the building on Washington Street.
And because the rickhouse will be heated in the winter to accommodate tours, Brown-Forman anticipates losing more aging bourbon to evaporation – what’s called the “angel’s share.”
That means significantly less bourbon per barrel when aging – at least four years per barrel – is over.
Trent Sheridan, a tour guide, said about 6 percent of the whiskey’s volume may be lost per year, compared to 3 to 4 percent in a normal barrel warehouse exposed to seasonal temperature swings.
Brown said it’s “hard” to make bourbon in the middle of an urban area, but other factors make the distillery worthwhile.
“The opportunity to move back into a building that was once operated by our founder, to be at the center of where all this began at the turn of the century, and to have such a wonderful environment to tell a really unique story, I think that at the end of the day it all balances out,” he said.