As the mint julep is the drink of choice at the upcoming Kentucky Derby, its main ingredient, bourbon, is Louisville’s characteristic cultural libation. As the home of the Derby, the city even instituted Bourbonism, an economic development plan to drive downtown tourism and business growth.
Upon arrival at the Muhammad Ali International Airport, visitors can partake in the bourbon experience with options in the terminal. Downtown, an 11-foot barrel art installation marks the entrance to the Bourbon District. Beyond, Louisville serves up 10 distillery experiences, many included on the Urban Bourbon Experience, a city trail stuffed with award-winning micro-distilleries, exhibits, and craft cocktail destinations. On a revitalized Main Street, restaurants serve up delicious enough edibles to find themselves ranked among Southern Living’s Top 10 Food Cities in the South. The drinks, of course, are world-class as bartenders compete to develop the most imaginative, entrancing bourbon cocktails.
Long-time Louisville mayor Greg Fischer has overseen significant growth since 2017 when his administration coined Bourbonism. With the big race fast approaching, The Manual chatted with Mayor Fischer in an email conversation to dig further into the bourbon initiative’s impact upon Derby City.
(The following conversation has been edited for clarity.).
TM: Has the Bourbon District been successful, in your opinion, since its 2017 unveiling?
Mayor Greg Fischer: The Bourbon District in downtown Louisville has been extremely successful. Before the pandemic, we welcomed 19 million people to Louisville annually and much of that was driven by our unique Bourbonism offerings, including our 10 urban distilleries.
Today, we are seeing tourism rapidly return to Louisville, and a big part of that is Bourbonism. We also are excited to welcome back Danny Wimmer Productions’ Bourbon & Beyond music festival, which perfectly mixes bourbon and music, this September.
TM: How many businesses, and how much revenue does it bring into downtown Louisville?
GF: In Kentucky, bourbon is a $9 billion industry, and you can see the impact of bourbon and Bourbonism. Since 2011, new distilleries and bourbon experiences have represented nearly $262 million of investment — most of it downtown — and we’ve added 15 new hotels, with more under construction or in development.
With partners (including Louisville Tourism), we created the Urban Bourbon Experience, a city-wide trail filled with award-winning micro-distilleries, exhibits, and craft cocktail destinations, that attracts visitors from around the world to Louisville. That has helped other businesses, particularly our local restaurants and retail shops, grow.
TM: Has the walkable experience brought more foot traffic to the area?
GF: Bourbonism has certainly bolstered our local tourism and hospitality industry. When I took office in 2011, Louisville welcomed 12.7 million visitors, and in 2019, that number had grown to 19 million visitors. With all but one of our city’s distillery experiences within walking distance of downtown, it encourages people to get out of their cars and explore the city.
TM: What is one of the more unique new businesses to develop in the bourbon district in the past few years?
GF: It’s been fun to see how local businesses are incorporating bourbon into their concepts and entrepreneurs are building entire businesses around the bourbon industry.
Businesses are always finding something new they can do with bourbon, from aging soy sauce in bourbon barrels like Bourbon Barrel Foods to providing specialized limestone-filtered ice cubes for bourbon drinks like Kentucky Straight Ice. Companies like Mint Julep Tours and Kentucky Bourbon Boys, which both provide customized tours of distilleries across the state, are growing rapidly with people sometimes booking a full year or two in advance.
TM: More liquor can mean more out-of-control crowds/people. How does Louisville address civic issues that can arise?
GF: We obviously want people to have a good time when they come to our city, and part of that is making sure they are safe. In addition to encouraging people to drink responsibly, we have a team of ambassadors throughout our downtown ready and able to help anyone in need, whether they are simply looking for directions to their next bourbon stop or they need help finding a safe ride to their home or hotel.
In Louisville, we’ve been intentional about the type of culture we’ve created around Bourbonism. Bourbon is ingrained in the history of our city, and the bourbon experiences reflect that in their own unique ways. When people visit these experiences they not only get to taste different bourbons, but they also learn about the process for making them, new innovations in the industry, and the history, including the previously untold stories of Black residents’ significant role in our bourbon history.
TM: With more bourbon production also comes more stillage (manufactured alcohol leftovers). What are some solutions Louisville is enacting or considering to help deal with excess bourbon production waste?
GF: From state and local government to the Kentucky Distillers Association and our universities, we all recognize that the growing amount of stillage in our city and state is an issue. Some of our distilleries have found a second purpose for their stillage as livestock feed and sell it to farmers statewide, but as a state, we are looking for innovative new ways to handle stillage.
In late 2021, Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear hosted a reverse pitch competition, and the winner was a company from Louisville called Bioproducts. Founder and CEO Dr. Jagannadh Satyavolu is a professor at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School, and his company is currently working to commercialize a way to process stillage into xylose, a low-calorie sweetener, and activated carbon, which has applications for battery cells. It’s truly amazing the solutions coming from UofL and the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits at the University of Kentucky.
TM: What is your favorite bourbon drink?
GF: My favorite bourbon drink is the Old Fashioned, a classic cocktail invented right here in Louisville. I like the Old Fashioned so much that I proclaimed it the city’s official cocktail in 2015.
TM: Where do you plan on watching the Kentucky Derby?
I’m excited to mark my last year as Louisville Mayor at the historic Churchill Downs helping the city celebrate this tremendous, internationally renowned event and what we hope to be a great year for our city.