Brown-Forman pushes back completion of Old Forester Distillery due to recent fire

IndustriesAssociated Press

Barely two weeks after a fire threatened to disrupt its plans, Brown-Forman Corp. celebrated the upcoming start of construction for a new Old Forester Distillery that will return its founding brand to its historic roots along Louisville's Whiskey Row.

The early July fire damaged neighboring buildings, but structures being converted into the production facility and visitors' center were spared thanks to firefighters. However, Brown-Forman executives said Wednesday the distillery's opening will be pushed back to 2017 due to the blaze.

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The company originally set a fall 2016 opening for the distillery.

"Two weeks ago, when fire struck three of the Whiskey Row buildings behind me, there were anxious moments for all of us at Brown-Forman," said Old Forester President Campbell Brown, a descendant of company founder George Garvin Brown. "But thanks to the excellent work of the Louisville Fire Department, the fire was contained and did not spread to the Old Forester buildings."

The facility will enable the company to double Old Forester production.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer recalled being at almost the same spot 16 days ago watching the massive fire across the street.

"It was a little surreal, I've got to tell you, to see smoke and flames ... just pouring out of the buildings," Fischer said.

The Kentucky-based spirit company's $45 million distillery and visitors' center project in downtown Louisville will include fermentation, distilling, barrel making and bottling operations.

George Garvin Brown introduced Old Forester when starting the company in 1870.

Old Forester sales peaked at 1 million cases per year in the early 1970s but slumped below 100,000 cases yearly just a few years ago. Those fortunes have reversed, with double-digit growth and a strategy to introduce Old Forester into international markets, starting in the United Kingdom and Australia.

The brand's revival comes amid an industrywide boom as bourbon producers find new consumers and capitalize on the popularity of cocktails.

"We're very fortunate to be here as a result of people rediscovering one of the originals," Campbell Brown said.

With the new distillery, Brown-Forman will return to a place that it once occupied a century ago.

The new distillery also marks the continued comeback of bourbon interests along Louisville's historic Whiskey Row. Decades ago, the stretch was a hotbed for bourbon makers, who had business, warehousing and bottling operations.

Though bourbon making is mostly a rural enterprise, craft distilleries are sprouting up in downtown Louisville. And the city's Urban Bourbon Trail offers a bourbon cocktail and culinary experience at participating restaurants. A popular downtown attraction is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, featuring a small working distillery near where the whiskey pioneer who inspired the Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. brand fired up his own stills two centuries ago.

Elsewhere in downtown Louisville, the spirits giant behind the Jim Beam brand has said it plans to open a whiskey-related attraction with a small working distillery in an entertainment district.

Kentucky is home to 95 percent of the world's bourbon production, and the Old Forester Distillery is part of an industrywide expansion phase. The Kentucky Distillers' Association says its members have completed or plan more than $1.3 billion in capital projects as part of a 10-year growth spurt.