As the first bourbon distillery to be built in Lexington in more than 100 years prepares to open, expectations are high that Town Branch Distillery will be a significant addition to downtown's strides toward a rebirth.
Alltech's Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. began crafting its first batch of Town Branch Bourbon on Wednesday in a new $9.2 million glass and limestone structure behind its brewery at Maxwell and Pine streets.
Town Branch Distillery, a few blocks from Rupp Arena, has joined the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, opening the potential for thousands of tourists to visit each year, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association.
The association started the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999. Town Branch is the only distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in a city.
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"In Kentucky, most distilleries are in rural settings, but many of those are drawing upwards of 100,000 people a year," Gregory said. Woodford Reserve in Woodford County frequently sees more than 2,000 visitors on a weekend.
"With all that Lexington has to offer from new restaurants downtown, great hotels and historic bed and breakfasts, we think a distillery and being on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a grand slam for the city," Gregory said.
The seven distilleries on the Trail are: Town Branch in Lexington, Four Roses and Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Jim Beam in Clermont and Maker's Mark in Loretto.
Four of the seven distilleries are within a 30-minute drive of Lexington, Gregory said.
On Wednesday, Alltech founder Pearse Lyons led a small group of visitors through his new craft distillery, showing off two large copper stills custom-made in Scotland.
Workers were cleaning windows, planting flowers out front and power washing the sidewalk. Lyons pointed out a new weather vane on top of the distillery: a miniature copper still.
Town Branch Distillery officially opens to the public Monday. Five guides will lead tours; an additional 12 guides are being trained.
A warehouse at the distillery will be stocked for tours, but 2,200 barrels of bourbon and whiskey are actually in a bonded warehouse in Bardstown.
To kick off the Town Branch opening, Alltech partnered with University of Kentucky coach John Calipari to offer a limited-edition "Title Town" Town Branch Bourbon, with a blue label commemorating the UK men's basketball team's 2012 NCAA championship.
Calipari signed bottles of Title Town on Wednesday night for 100 people who were invited to a charity benefit at the distillery.
Only 2,500 Title Town bottles will be sold. Matt Cordle, manager of Alltech's Division of Brewing, said the commemorative bottle "should be available by Friday at your favorite Town Branch retailer."
The distillery's celebration will continue Thursday with an invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony with Lyons, his wife, Deirdre, and Mayor Jim Gray. Afterward, the Lyonses will host a street party on the Alltech campus for runners in the 200-mile Bourbon Chase, a 24-hour relay race along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
In its fourth year, this year's race has attracted 300 teams (with 4,000 participants). It begins Friday at Jim Beam and ends Saturday afternoon in Triangle Park.
As evidence of its increasing popularity, the race sold out in five hours, event director Mike Kuntz said, adding, "We would have sold out in an hour, but so many people came to our Web site it crashed twice."
Making bourbon is a logical next step for Lyons, a transplanted Irishman who has a doctorate in fermentation from the British School of Brewing in Birmingham, England. Yeast is the basis for the international animal-nutrition company he has built in Central Kentucky.
Lyons said having his own distillery "is a dream come true."
The Alltech brewery also makes Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Kentucky Light and Kentucky Ale, and it will soon introduce Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout, a coffee stout aged in bourbon barrels. The company also makes Bluegrass Sundown, an Irish coffee infused with bourbon.
The Bourbon Barrel Ale is sold in 14 states, plus China, Canada and Ireland. Cordle said market plans for the bourbon and whiskey call for similar distribution.