If you have time for one and only one distillery visit while you’re in the heart of the bourbon world, the new Old Forester facility in downtown Louisville, Kentucky is all you’ll need to see. The site gives bourbon enthusiasts a great option for seeing almost every aspect of how the spirit is made under the same roof.
The new facility, which opened in June 2018, is designed to showcase the entire whiskey-making process from fermentation to barrel filling, and everything in between. They’re not making much—only about 100,000 gallons a year, but that’s to their advantage, because it leaves a lot more room for people.
There’s a particular feather in the cap of this tour experience that you should take note of: Old Forester’s facility, which is on Main Street, is the first to showcase the cooperage process (or barrel making) in the bourbon world.
Most of the bourbon distilleries in Kentucky get their barrels from one of two large off-site coopering operations (one of which is owned by Old Forester’s parent company Brown-Foreman), so if you want to see barrels being made, you have to make an inconvenient, whiskey-free stop on your Kentucky tour. Even then, a lot of things aren’t really laid bare for the public, because you’re basically touring a sawmill with a bunch of fire-blowing jet engines. (Frankly, that’s why most distilleries don’t have their cooperage in the same space as their distillation facility: it’s dangerous as hell. Distilling tens of thousands of gallons of flammable liquids next to open fires and storage houses full of wood would not have been considered a “good idea” back in the day.)
That means that even the larger distilleries—which can sometimes feel like a day trip to Bourbon Disneyworld—are not quite as vertically integrated. But the Old Forester facility is different: the environment is more controlled, a nearly endless series of safety measures has been installed solely for this reason, and more importantly, since it’s done on such a small scale, the potential fallout is not nearly as catastrophic as with major volume-focused distilleries.
Tourism has been steadily growing for Kentucky’s bourbon industry as the popularity of drinking it has gone up, with annual visitors topping the million mark for the first time just in the last couple of years, so this new experience marks one of more than a dozen similar investments of funds and construction in the past decade.
But while others have added restaurant experiences or off-site learning annexes to their total bourbon empires (many of which are incredible), this marks the first time an entire operation has been separately set up solely for the purpose of showing casual tourists the whole process.
A little caveat: there is one piece of the puzzle you technically won’t see on an Old Forester Distillery tour: the mashing. Corn, rye, and barley are mixed with water offsite, and so the first time you meet “bourbon” in the distillery it’s already been “cooked” and had yeast added to it. But if you’ve ever added water to a packet of instant oatmeal, you have a sense of how interesting this process can be. It’s something that, compared with everything else you’ll see, is pretty negligible.
But aside from that, it’s the total tourism experience. So once you’ve seen the fermenting mash turn into distiller’s beer, followed its path over to the still, ridden a glass elevator up alongside the 44-foot still to the cooperage space, and seen barrels shaped, fired, filled and sent off for storage, you’ll still have the chance to exit through the gift shop, walk a couple blocks down to one of our favorite watering holes in town, the 21c Hotel bar Proof, and have a few drinks, all without ever leaving Louisville.
For more information about the distillery and how to plan a visit, head to Old Forester’s website.