LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Kentucky's mostly rustic bourbon sector is spreading to the shadows of Louisville's skyscrapers, where a tiny distillery being developed by the maker of Evan Williams bourbon will become a big-city stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The artisanal distillery will produce one or two barrels of bourbon daily — a drop in the barrel for a company whose top brand is the world's No. 2-selling bourbon behind Jim Beam. The distillery, scheduled to open in October, is seen mostly as a tourist destination in the heart of Kentucky's largest city. It's a short walk from the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, and is across the street from the spot where Welsh immigrant Evan Williams set up a distillery in 1783.
The new attraction, called The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, will feature an eye-catching five-story-high Evan Williams Bourbon bottle.
The approximately $10 million investment by Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. comes amid an overall boom in the bourbon business.
In the past two years, Kentucky's bourbon makers have invested more than $230 million in new and expanded production facilities, warehouses, visitors' centers, bottling lines and more, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. It's the largest expansion since Prohibition.
It comes amid growing popularity for the Kentucky spirit. Last year, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales from producers or suppliers to wholesalers rose 5.2 percent to 16.9 million cases, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association.
Kentucky's bourbon distillers filled more than one million barrels of bourbon last year, the first time since 1973. And more than 500,000 people visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail last year, the first time the tour has broken the half-million mark.
"It wasn't all that long ago when the bourbon category was pretty much cast off in the alcohol beverage industry to that great liquor store in the sky," said Max L. Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Distilleries, the country's largest family-owned distilled spirits company.
"But over the last 10 to 15 years, it's been an almost unbelievable ... renaissance in the bourbon category."
The industry-wide investments are meant to "keep up with what we think is a bright and promising future for this category," he said.
It's an industry that has to take a longer-term perspective in projecting demand, since the whiskey it makes today ages for several years before reaching liquor stores and bars.
The ceremony came amid the ongoing construction work to convert the downtown building into a tourist attraction. Heaven Hill executives were joined by city and state officials and representatives from other bourbon makers for a toast to celebrate the micro-distillery's addition as the eighth stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The trail takes visitors to several rural and rustic settings to visit the places where bourbons such as Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve and Four Roses are created. Last year, the trail expanded into Kentucky's second-largest city when the Lexington distillery that makes Town Branch bourbon was added.
The trail has attracted more than 2.5 million visitors in the past five years. Kentucky is home to 95 percent of the world's bourbon production, and there are 4.9 million bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky, which outnumbers the state's population.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said that bringing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to Louisville will enhance tourism in a city that considers bourbon to be a "food group." The trail capitalizes on attractions that are unique to Kentucky, he said.
"Nobody else has got this bourbon experience that we've got," he said.
Shapira said his company's new tourist attraction, with its small pot still, will dabble in ultra-premium, experimental bourbon whiskeys that are "out of the ordinary." The attraction is in a building being renovated along a street that was once called "Whiskey Row" in downtown Louisville.
The company estimates the center will attract more than 100,000 visitors each year.
Heaven Hill has operated its Bourbon Heritage Center at Bardstown as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail since 2004. The trail also features Four Roses and Wild Turkey at Lawrenceburg, Jim Beam at Clermont, Maker's Mark at Loretto, Town Branch in Lexington and Woodford Reserve near Versailles.