Distillery Visits May Be Paused, but Old Forester Continues to Evolve

2020 marks Old Forester’s 150th anniversary, but what was intended as a year of exciting celebrations and reflections has instead, amid COVID-19, turned into another opportunity for the resilient company to evolve and grow.

May 2020Written by Brian WrightPhotography by Terrance Campbell and Brown-Forman

men standing on horse-drawn buggy on cobblestone street
construction crane moves materials into a brick building
crowd of people watch as old forester coming soon banner is unveiled
old forester sign hangs over the distillery's main street entrance
room with glass cases and shelves featuring old forest whisky and vintage memorabilia
room with large steel cylindrical fermentation tanks protruding through the floor
large steel cylindrical fermentation tank with metallic number one on side protruding through the floor
scaffolding and the top of a wrapped column still in a room with glass ceiling and windows
stairs leading up to a three-story tall copper column still used to distill alcohol
windows in a wall showing a lab and pipes used to pour high-proof alcohol into a sealed chamber
educational description on a black wooden wall explaining whisky barrel aging effects
wooden staves sit inside a contraption that assists in the assembly of whisky barrels
steel furnace and ventilator used for charring whisky barrels
room of assembled whiskey barrels awaiting to be charred
multi-level steel rackhouse completely filled with full whiskey barrels
entryway to two numbered rooms used for whisky tastings labeled 2 and 1
a woman pays for her merchandise at a counter in a gift shop

The idea to return Old Forester to its original home on Whiskey Row began in 2008. That’s when Brown-Forman purchased two buildings on Main St. in downtown Louisville — previously the company’s original headquarters until 1922 — saving them from being torn down.

“From day one we knew this had to be a real, functioning distillery,” said Campbell Brown, President of Old Forester. “We didn’t want this to be a Disney-like attraction with tour guides reading from scripts. We wanted a fully operating distillery that we could build a tour around, complete with a cooperage, warehouse, distillation, fermentation, and bottling.”

Old Forester’s return to Whiskey Row was announced to the public in September 2014, with a projected opening date of fall 2016. After a three-alarm fire threated to bring down the building next door, construction on the distillery finally began on July 22, 2015.

While the fire did cause a delay, it was a small setback for a company that had already weathered Prohibition, recessions and depressions, and downturns in the bourbon industry in its 150-year history.

Finally, on June 14, 2017 — National Bourbon Day — the $45 million, 70,000-square-foot state-of-the-art distillery and visitor experience at 117-119 Main St. opened its doors to the public for the first time.

“There was so much pressure leading up to it for the team and I, that opening day was a big relief,” said Erik Brown, Old Forester’s Visitor Experience Manager. “Seeing the Brown family there, Campbell and his mom Christy, along with 50 new brand ambassadors for Old Forester standing with them, eager to share its story and history after putting in a ton of work, I just thought to myself, this is going to be special.”

The distillery, and the tour itself, are indeed something special and unlike any of the other urban bourbon trail experiences.

“We designed the tour to follow the distillation process from start to finish. Guests move with the spirit throughout the building,” said Brown. “The configuration of that distillery is actually terrible for producing whiskey every day. It is backwards because of the way we wanted to conduct the tour and it makes little sense from an operational flow, but the layout makes for a really incredible consumer experience.”

“It's a beauty in and of itself to have an entire functional distillery in the square footage that it's within,” said Old Forester’s Master Taster, Jackie Zykan. “What's so cool about how the distillery is laid out is that there is no place in the building where you’re not literally right next to the production process. You’re always right there, incorporated into it.”

“Being a part of the working distillery for the day speaks to just how transparent the brand is about what we're doing here. We’re proud of the quality that we put into every bottle of Old Forester. We want you to see all of it, because for us it is a point of pride,” said Zykan.

As Old Forester’s Master Taster, Zykan is often tasked with guiding industry professionals and bourbon enthusiasts through the distillery for their very first time. To date, she has never had a single person say anything negative about the experience. Instead, she often sees those she tours come back for repeat visits.

“For the most part, a lot of the people that I will be going through the distillery with have been to other distilleries before and they've seen some of our competitors. And yet, they continue to come back to Old Forester time and time again,” said Zykan.

“There's so much detail that has gone into this place that there really is something new for them to discover every time.”

“The intelligence behind the design of this place, and the facets of the production process that you get to experience all in one building, it just completely floors guests," said Zykan.

One of the tour highlights for guests is the fully functioning barrel cooperage, as well as the barrel char station that allows guests to set the inside of newly built barrels aflame, indoors.

“I still kind question why we don’t have that flame behind glass,” joked Brown. “I remember going down there the first time and asked Erik when he was planning to drop glass in to protect everyone from the flame. Erik replied with something like, ‘Oh, we don't need to. We've tested it all and it works. Don't worry about it.’ I'm like, ‘Well, you know what? My office is right above this station, so I am kind of worried about it.’"

The charring station has paid off for the Brown-Forman team as it quickly became one of the distillery’s most Instagrammed locations.

“That station is a full sensory experience for guests. Not only do they get to see how a barrel is charred, but they can feel the heat the fire puts off and smell the burnt sugars coming from the wood. That’s an experience no other distillery in the city can offer,” said Brown.

Another experience unique to Old Forester is that customers shopping for a single barrel can make their selection in the heart of the distillery’s very full bourbon warehouse.

“We have created the perfect environment to do a barrel selection,” said Zykan. “The warehouse is climate controlled and well ventilated. There’s still the smell of bourbon evaporating around you and angel’s share is in the air, but it’s not at such a saturated level that it’s interfering with your senses during selection.”

While the distillery may be revolutionary in both its function and design, the Old Forester team is continuously working behind the scenes to make the total experience better for guests.

“From a visitor experience, there's truly nothing like it, but we’re always are looking for new ways to make it better,” said Brown. “We just re-laid out our entire retail footprint, and the production part of the facility is changing right along with it as we introduce new Old Forester expressions.”

“We’re continuing to evolve right alongside our consumers,” added Zykan. “Old Forester as a brand is carrying the distillery experience, and the bourbon category, into a more modern space.”

On March 15, 2020, Old Forester made the difficult decision to close its Whiskey Row distillery in downtown Louisville to the public. The team was hopeful that by doing so it would keep its guests, employees, their families, and the community safe from the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

A week later, on March 24, Old Forester joined thousands of other business, homes, and landmarks across the state of Kentucky and illuminated its distillery with green lights to honor those who have passed away from COVID-19.

This was not how 2020 was supposed to unfold for Old Forester. After all, there was much to celebrate:

The 150th Anniversary of the brand and its parent company, Brown-Forman.

The Old Forester distillery and Erik Brown, the distillery’s visitor experience manager, were honored by Whiskey Magazine as the 2020 Sustainable Distillery and Visitor Attraction Manager of the Year, respectively.

Plus, the company had a year’s worth of consumer advertising in place, including a contest to bring a fortunate few down to the distillery and house them in the recently renovated Old Forester apartment adjacent to the building.

Old forester innovators from left to right: President Campbell Brown, Master Taster Jackie Zykan and Visitor experience manager Erik Brown
From left to right: President Campbell Brown, Master Taster Jackie Zykan and Visitor Experience Manager Erik Brown

In the two-and-a-half years that have passed since Old Forester opened it doors to the public, the distillery has planted deep roots within the local community and in the bourbon industry at large. The distillery has played host to fan-filled product launches, housed intimate family celebrations, and earned the respect of the nation’s top bartenders at Camp Runamok.

Now, however, the distillery and the community it supports have been forced to hit pause due to COVID-19.

“All this momentum that we’ve spent the last two years building towards in the city has come to a complete stop,” said Brown. “To see downtown Louisville as a ghost town, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Jackie Zykan, Old Forester’s Master Taster, has also had to find new ways to do her role from her home, including barrel selections.

“As much as I would love to get out of my house and go into the distillery and work there, we all understand the most important thing to do right now is to stay away and to protect our production crew,” Zykan said. “Those working the bottling line and labeling bottles are the heart that’s pumping blood through the company and we must do everything we can to keep them safe.”

a group of employees gather around a pallet of cases of whisky commemorating the 150th anniversary of old forester
Employees gather around a pallet of cased whisky commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Old Forester

While life in quarantine has posed challenges for the Old Forester team, it has also brought an opportunity to re-evaluate what’s been done in the past and to look for new ways to improve both the distillery and the customer experience once the doors swing open again.

Brown and his team are already working on new customer experiences while making sure that the layout and flow of the tour will continue to be welcoming, comfortable, and safe for guests.

“Our focus now is that when we do get to open those doors, let's open them with authority and be ready to go,” said Old Forester President, Campbell Brown.

“We're going to get back to it. We're going to be the best experience that there is. When people come back into that building, they're going to say, ‘This is what we missed. We missed Old Forester.’"

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