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BACK IN 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. set out to make a smooth, gentler bourbon that would rely on wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain in the mash bill. By emphasizing quality, he hoped to command a higher price.

His Maker’s Mark carved out a niche, but the big distillers didn’t pay attention — until 1980, when the Wall Street Journal featured Samuels in a front-page story. The story suggested a new direction for an industry that had been stuck doing the same old thing. It made the case that bourbon could be sold on the basis of quality and that premium bourbon could build a customer base, Cowdery says.

One by one, the distillers started adding premium brands. Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, introduced Blanton’s, the first single-barrel bourbon, in 1984. Heaven Hill, in Bardstown, started selling 12-year-old Elijah Craig, a small-batch bourbon, in 1986. Jim Beam, in Clermont, began rolling out new premium bourbons — its small-batch collection comprises Knob Creek, Booker’s, Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s.

By the early 1990s, there was a veritable explosion in the premium category, with ever-escalating price points. Single-barrel bourbons, which, by definition, are produced in small quantities, easily fetch hundreds of dollars a bottle and still sell out quickly.

“We were tapping into the demand for better bottling of these American whiskeys, which reflected the groundswell of interest in traditional handmade, heritage-laden products,” says Larry Kass, spokesperson for Heaven Hill Distilleries. “It wasn’t really until that point that the industry really started to get it right.”

Distillers have continued to up the ante. The iconic brand Wild Turkey, distilled in Lawrenceburg, offers Rare Breed, a melding of bourbons of various ages, as well as Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel, bottled from select barrels chosen by legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell.

Getting consumers to appreciate the value of pricier bourbons meant helping them appreciate the craftsmanship and traditions involved in producing a quality product. Many of the distillery companies, especially those clustered around the historic town of Bardstown, just south of Louisville, have long welcomed visitors, but they increased their efforts in the ’90s.

In 1999, borrowing a page from California’s wine country, the distilleries launched the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Makers along the trail offer museumlike exhibits as well as an opportunity to see bubbling mash in giant fermentation vats, bottling lines and warehouses stacked with barrels. For many people, though, the free bourbon is the highlight of a visit.

In the past five years, the trail has attracted 1.5 million visitors, and it’s likely to continue to grow in popularity as distilleries keep adding to the visitor experience.

“The first couple of years, the bourbon tourism was good, but we didn’t realize what we had here in Kentucky,” says Eric Gregory of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “We didn’t realize how popular it’d be.”

LIKE THE BOURBON business, Louisville needed to do things differently. Fortunately, it had a few cards up its sleeve.

One was United Parcel Service (UPS), which based a small hub at the airport in 1980. Not long afterward, Humana — a fast-growing hospital chain that’s now a health-insurance company — sealed its commitment to downtown with the construction of a 26-story corporate headquarters.

The UPS hub has since mushroomed into Worldport, a sprawling operations center for express and international business and Louisville’s top employer, with 20,000 workers. And the Humana Tower, completed in the mid-1980s, served as a catalyst for an estimated $2.5 billion worth of downtown development.

Since then, Main Street has been transformed into a veritable museum row, including the kid-friendly Louisville Science Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The new Frazier International History Museum boasts an eclectic collection of artifacts, including medieval armor and weaponry.

Abramson says Main Street is an example of how an ongoing preservation ethic paid off for the city, attracting new investments like 21c Museum Hotel — voted the top hotel in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler in 2009 — and its signature restaurant, Proof on Main. “We made a commitment to keep what was special,” he says.

Right around the corner from Main, on Sixth Street, is the Muhammad Ali Center, opened by “the Greatest” and his wife, Lonnie, in 2005. The old pedestrian mall that blocked traffic on Fourth is a distant memory; it’s been replaced by Fourth Street Live, a dining, entertainment and retail complex that draws thousands downtown.

Arguably, the crown jewel of downtown development has been the transformation of the land along the Ohio River. This area has been turned into an 85-acre swath of green known as Waterfront Park, complete with trails, picnic areas, playgrounds and other amenities. “What was a working waterfront of piles of junk and sand and steel and scrap is now acres and acres of green, open space and a wonderful gathering space,” Abramson says. “It’s a wonderful front door for our city.”

Abramson, who held the mayoral seat from 1985 to 1998 and was re-elected in 2003, has gotten credit for helping shepherd the city’s transformation. He says a high level of civic involvement was what made the difference.

“Without the Brown-Forman Corp., there would not be a Kentucky Opera. Without Humana’s commitment, there wouldn’t be an orchestra,” he says. “We had people who cared, business leaders who were native Louisvillians who cared.”