The friendly rivalry for the hearts and throats of bourbon lovers is about to get more interesting, particularly in Louisville, where major distilleries are focusing their tourism efforts.
Six months after opening the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at the historic Stitzel-Weller campus in Shively, Diageo is adding a small still, which will make about a barrel of spirits a week.
The craft distillery, which also will be open for visitors, is to begin operating in the next few weeks, in time for the Stitzel-Weller distillery's 80th anniversary on Derby Day, May 2.
The visitors center expects an influx of tourists for the Kentucky Derby week. It features history about Stitzel-Weller has a gift shop full of Bulleit merchandise. Since opening, it has drawn about 5,500 visitors.
And those visitors have had to be pretty determined about it, because the place — which is revered among whiskey aficionados as the spiritual home of Pappy Van Winkle (the man, not the bourbon, which is now made at Buffalo Trace) — is not easy to find.
But they've managed it, including more than 400 on one recent weekend, despite a lack of signs directing them there. Eventually, Diageo hopes to attract as many 45,000 tourists a year to the visitors center. Not bad for a place that doesn't really make much.
Most of the real action will be going on soon in Shelbyville, where Diageo has a $115 million distillery going up on 300 acres. One warehouse is almost completed, and barrels from the Stitzel-Weller site are to begin moving there soon.
The plant should begin operating in fall 2016 and begin making Bulleit bourbon, one of Diageo's fastest-growing brands and the fastest-growing bourbon brand.
In January, Diageo reported that sales of Bulleit surged 55 percent globally in six months, and the brand is likely to sell more than 750,000 cases for the year.
But Diageo isn't content with just one hot-selling brand: The company announced this month that it is bringing back the I.W. Harper label, a historic brand created by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and Bernard Bernheim.
I.W. Harper hasn't been sold in the U.S. in more than 20 years, but enthusiasts quickly hailed its return. The brand has been — and will continue to be — sold in Japan with a slightly different taste profile, said Pauline Rooney, vice president of North American distillation, maturation and engineering for Diageo.
The I.W. Harper to come out in the United States later this month will have a taste profile closer to what the old I.W. Harper sold here had, Rooney said last week during a tour of the Stitzel-Weller plant, where she was overseeing the new craft distillery and a recently installed bottling line. Another small bottling line for "playing" with craft releases also will go in, she said.
Japanese drinkers tend to like a little sweeter bourbon, she said. These two I.W. Harpers — one has no age statement but is said to be four years old; the other is 15 years old — will go alongside a growing line of Orphan Barrel releases in Diageo's American whiskey lineup.
The goal is to be the next big hit, the premium bourbon everybody wants and will pay top dollar for — in other words, the next Pappy Van Winkle. Diageo can only obliquely refer to that because it comes from rival Buffalo Trace, which is owned by Sazerac, which has its own stable of sought-after bourbons.
At the same time, Bulleit is going to get some major competition from crosstown rival Brown-Forman, which is reinvigorating its Old Forester brand, with a $30 million downtown distillery and visitors center, emphasizing its claim to be the most authentic and historic bourbon.
Campbell Brown, announced last week as the new president of Old Forester, said the company plans to put $20 million more into pushing the brand toward 500,000 cases a year, then to its 1970s-era peak of more than 1 million.
Bulleit brand founder Tom Bulleit isn't worried about the future.
"I have to pinch myself. I'm delighted," Bulleit said last week in his office at Stitzel-Weller, the same office where Pappy Van Winkle once sat.
"We're on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and we'll have our history center here, our experimental still here," he said. "Diageo's investing hundreds of millions in Kentucky. Bulleit is the fastest-growing bourbon, and the rye is the biggest-selling rye in the world. "I'm pleased. I would have to be mentally ill not to be pleased."