THE BOURBON INDUSTRY HELPED FUEL THE REBIRTH OF A ONCE-STRUGGLING LOUISVILLE. NOW LOUISVILLE IS RETURNING THE FAVOR.


Photographs by Nelson Augé
  • Image about Louisville
WHEN LOUISVILLE MAYOR JERRY ABRAMSON comes calling, he arrives bearing gifts.

In recent years, Abramson has hosted “reunion” parties in big cities across the country, hoping to persuade young professionals who have Louisville ties to return home. As part of his pitch, Abramson plies his guests with samples of top-shelf bourbon.

“The bourbon tasting at the beginning of the evening seems to be a crowd-pleaser,” he says, laughing.

Whether his spiel works almost doesn’t matter. Abramson manages to do something that would have been nigh impossible a generation ago: He makes Louisville sound exciting and bourbon seem special.

“It’s a new day,” he tells the hundreds of ex-Kentuckians who gather for the meet and greets. And he’s right.

Thirty years ago, Louisville was just another mostly blue-collar town. Its downtown was shabby and uninviting. Well-paying manufacturing jobs were leaving. The only new development seemed to be taking place in the suburbs.

As for bourbon, a mainstay of the local and regional economy, it was steadily losing market share. It had become an afterthought in the increasingly competitive distilled-spirits business.

But those earlier times apparently belong in the past: Today’s Louisville is, well, cool, and bourbon is hot.

No longer just the first stop of the Triple Crown, Louisville is a must-see destination for lovers of architecture, the visual and performing arts, history, fine dining and indie music. It’s a city of parks, museums and dynamic neighborhoods and is home to Fortune 500 companies like Humana, Kindred Healthcare and Yum! Brands, the world’s biggest operator of fast-food chains.

And bourbon, once dismissed as the liquor of choice for working-class stiffs, has evolved into a global drink of choice for connoisseurs and upwardly mobile professionals. The Beverage Information Group reports that America drinks more than 20 million gallons of the stuff a year — and, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, worth more than $1.5 billion a year, is made in Kentucky.

That both transformations took place at the same time is more than a coincidence.

BOURBON HAS BEEN a big part of the Louisville narrative since the 1780s. Popular (though likely apocryphal) accounts credit a Baptist minister, Rev. Elijah Craig, with bourbon’s invention near present-day Georgetown, Ky. As the story goes, Craig had a fire sometime in the 1780s, and his whiskey barrels were scorched. A frugal man, he used them anyway, and it paid off. Contact with the charred oak gives whiskey an amber hue and pleasing, sweet hints of caramel and vanilla. In 1783, a settler named Evan Williams started cooking mash on the banks of the Ohio River and became the first local commercial distiller.

Despite Kentucky’s conservatism — even today, more than one-third of the state’s counties are dry, barring alcohol sales of any kind — whiskey-making flourished there because of natural advantages that few other states share, namely, ample supplies of limestone-filtered, iron-free water and optimal weather conditions for aging liquor.

By the end of the 19th century, Louisville had more than 20 registered distilleries. Its bustling liquor-warehouse district, along Main Street, became known as Whiskey Row.

Prohibition’s enactment in 1920 didn’t stop people from drinking, but it did close hundreds of American breweries and distilleries. And, thanks to smugglers, it also gave Americans an appreciation for other kinds of liquor.

Before bourbon could regain lost ground once Prohibition was repealed, the U.S. entered World War II, and distillers were pressed into making industrial alcohol, which was used in the production of pharmaceuticals, household cleaners, cosmetics and the like. When the war ended, distillers rushed to ramp up production but found the market had again shifted. Returning veterans had acquired a taste for scotch and other smoother blends. Bourbon became viewed primarily as a working-class drink. Marketing accordingly, distillers competed on price, and a few took shortcuts. Some once-venerable brands were damaged.

“There was a real race to the bottom, in terms of taking a lot of the quality out of the product,” says Charles Cowdery, a Chicago lawyer and writer who edits and publishes The Bourbon Country Reader.

By the 1970s, the bottom fell out on bourbon and sales plummeted.

Louisville, too, was having troubles. About 40 percent of its work force was in manufacturing in the ’70s, but that was about to change. General Electric, which employed more than 20,000 at its sprawling Appliance Park, permanently cut more than three-fourths of its work force. Other big employers, such as International Harvester, American Standard, Brown & Williamson and Philip Morris, eventually closed their Louisville plants.

“Louisville had a lot in common with other Southern cities, such as Birmingham, Memphis and Chattanooga, which were effectively Rust Belt cities, with traditionally a lot of heavy industry,” says Aaron Renn, a strategy consultant and urban affairs analyst who grew up in southern Indiana, near Louisville. “The 1970s were the low watermark. There was a lot of labor unrest, and Louisville went through a period when many of the jobs just disappeared.”

It took a visionary to start turning bourbon’s — and thus, the city’s — fortune around.