Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Rabbit Hole, Louisville's latest downtown distillery, opens today


Photo by Fred Minnick
Rabbit Hole Distilling is a new $18 million bourbon distillery located in downtown Louisville. They had their grand opening today.

Rabbit Hole has had whiskey on the market for the last year or two, but it was contract distilled by another distillery. At full production, their new distillery will be able to make about one million proof gallons of spirit per year. That's big, about the same size as neighbors Angel's Envy (open now) and Old Forester (opening soon).

The other, smaller distilleries in downtown Louisville are at the Evan Williams Experience, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, and Michter's (opening soon). Kentucky Peerless Distilling is just slightly west of downtown. Copper and Kings, a very spiffy brandy distillery, is just east.

Louisville is, of course, the capital of Bourbon Country. Evan Williams had one of the first distilleries there in the 18th century, in what would now be considered downtown, but historically distilleries have not been in the city. That is true everywhere, not just Kentucky. The distributors and rectifiers would be located downtown, close to the river in Louisville's case, because the Ohio River was the principal way whiskey got to distant markets. Louisville always had a few distilleries in town, but most were on the outskirts, close to the farms that grew the grain.

There were other reasons for distilleries to stay away from population centers. Water needs were one, they need a lot of it and it needs to be clean. Before Prohibition, many distilleries kept livestock, typically cows or pigs, because spent mash is a nutritious feed. Whiskey maturation warehouses take a lot of real estate and in the city they need extra security. Because distilleries make high proof alcohol, fire is always a risk.

Today, the equation has changed. No distilleries have feedlots and most use municipal water sources. Fire safety is much advanced. All of the new downtown distilleries have only token maturation stocks on-site, if any.

But the biggest change is tourism. People like to visit distilleries. A great visitor experience can create a customer for life.

While a rural distillery such as Maker's Mark has its own unique charms, urban distilleries are easily accessible. Now someone in town for a day or two on business; or attending a sporting event, concert or convention, can easily get in a distillery visit or two. Louisville's distilleries are a unique attraction that reinforce Louisville's standing as Bourbon's capital city. Add in non-bourbon attractions such as Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Muhammad Ali Center, plus myriad lodging and dining choices, and Louisville is hard to beat. Visiting Louisville is also remarkably affordable compared to other major cities.

Although one million proof gallons is a lot of whiskey, these new distilleries are small compared to plants such as Heaven Hill, which is close to downtown Louisville, or Brown-Forman, which is about three miles south. The three massive distilleries operated by Beam Suntory in Kentucky are all in rural areas, as are the rest, more or less.

It is still somewhat odd to build what is essentially a factory in the middle of an urban center, but in this case it all seems to make sense. Congratulations to the folks at Rabbit Hole for joining in this marvelous experiment.

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