In April 2014, Brown-Forman executives, Gov. Steve Beshear and master distiller Chris Morris gathered to toast a $1.9 million expansion of the visitors’ center at Woodford Reserve, which added a tasting room, a bigger gift shop and restaurant space to accommodate growing numbers of tourists.
A year later, bourbon tourism kept rising and the company was already planning another expansion.
The new Gristmill Welcome Center, which will officially open June 12, will give the brand’s homeplace a welcoming starting point for tours, said Catherine Delaney, manager of the visitors’ experience. Tourists, and there are more and more every day, will pick up tickets for tours (reservations available online) then gather in a roomy area with leather sofas, paintings by Kentucky artists and handcrafted decor that hints at whiskey’s origins.
From there, shuttles take them across McCracken Pike to begin tours, Delaney said. That will relieve the bottleneck of tourists and distillery workers that can occur at peak times, such as the spring and fall meets at nearby Keeneland Racecourse, when the distillery gets up to 1,400 visitors a day.
In 2014, when the expanded visitors center opened, the distillery had just under 100,000 visitors annually. This year, they welcomed more than 150,000 for the first time, a 50 percent increase in just five years.
“And the growth each year has been increasing,” Delaney said. So they began having conversations about how to keep up and how to maintain the best guest experience possible. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The explosion in visitors comes as Kentucky’s bourbon industry continues to attract more visitors. In 2018, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association, tourists made 1.4 million stops at distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which does not include thousands of visits the Buffalo Trace and Barton’s distilleries, or many smaller ones.
It also comes as the popularity of Woodford Reserve is soaring around the world: The brand is on track to top 1 million cases sold “in the next year,” said Chris Poynter, brand spokesman. The brand just reported 22 percent growth for the year, making it the world’s best-selling super premium whiskey, he said.
“We did set in place a long-term master plan about five years ago, working with some really talented consultants, to help us manage this growth at a property originally built 22 years ago for about 60,000 visitors,” said Eric Doninger, Brown-Forman vice president. “We crossed 60,000 a number of years ago.”
To accommodate, they added more tours and events, more parking, and now the welcome center, which was designed by EOP Architects, he said.
Visitors who want to go directly to the gift shop for purchases will still be able to park by the visitors center, but that new lot will give tour buses a place to go to free up space.
Doninger, who is global director of homeplace operations for all of Brown-Forman’s brands, said that the new welcome center will make tours linear, with a beginning at the welcome center and an end point at the tasting room and gift shop. Both locations also have bars that offer Woodford Reserve cocktails for about $15, a very popular option with many visitors.
The new welcome center, which has porches overlooking nearby horse farms as well as the picturesque distillery itself, also can be used as a venue for parties and events, with space for about 100 guests, Delaney said. The bar in the welcome features crystal glasses and lighting from Baccarat, a new corporate partner.
Woodford Reserve, which debuted as a new brand in 1996, was one of the first in the modern era to revive tourism and have a visitors center from the start, even though guests couldn’t actual taste the bourbon in the beginning. The historic distillery was repurchased from a local farmer in 1993 to begin producing whiskey again.
But late company chairman Owsley Brown II realized that they would come, Doninger said.
“That was his vision, to create a bourbon destination that celebrated the best of Kentucky and the best of our Kentucky bourbon in a place that was almost a gift to the citizens of the commonwealth,” he said. Brown was deeply involved in the minutiae of the design, from which trees and flowers to plant to the architecture and motifs of the wrought iron, he said. “We’re really stewards of that passion.”
With Woodford Reserve serving as the title sponsor of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the distillery also has seen an increase in foot traffic around the Run for the Roses as well, Delaney said. “That Sunday has become one of our busiest days of the year. ... The association’s been fantastic.”
Brown-Forman is already looking ahead, planning for the next phase of bourbon tourism. “We’re actually working on that right now,” Doninger said. “To see what our growth potential is, but is there a chance that more and more visitors could cause more congestion and create a less than premium experience? So we’re trying to wrestle that answer down right now. We’re not sure where we are going with this yet. ... We want to keep as much greenspace as possible. ... We think we’re covered for five years more but after that we’re not quite sure about bourbon tourism growth rates and what that impact might have on all the distilleries along the bourbon trail.”