On Monday afternoon, a piece of Louisville, Kentucky’s rich whiskey history caught fire, leaving preservationists, historians and bourbon lovers wondering what will become of the city’s Whiskey Row.
Three buildings were damaged in the blaze which broke out at 4:30 p.m.— 111, 113 and 115 West Main Street — all part of a project to redevelop the historic structures into new lofts, retail and restaurant space called 111 Whiskey Row. The conflagration was also just down the street from the site where Brown-Forman plans to install its new Old Forester distillery experience.
According to bourbon historian and author of the upcoming book Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker Fred Minnick, Whiskey Row used to be the "Wall Street of Whiskey."
He explains, "In the 1800s it is where whiskey was traded, there was wholesale and business; and it was a hotbed of the labels we have today. It truly was the epicenter of bourbon; this fire just devastated anyone involved with bourbon. You have an emotional connection to these building, so to see them going up in flames was just so hard to swallow."
Maggie Kimberl, a bourbon culture expert and writer, expanded upon the history: "Contrary to popular belief, there was never any major distilling activity on Whiskey Row. It was instead a critical mass for the offices and headquarters of distilling operations, not only in Louisville, but throughout the state."
Adds Kimberl, "Historic whiskey names such as JTS Brown are still emblazoned on the facades of Whiskey Row, and Brown-Forman is reclaiming its old home for the Old Forester Distillery and visitor's center. In Louisville, as well as in the bourbon world, we repurpose our historic sites in a way that connects the past to the present, and nowhere is this more evident than on Whiskey Row."
However, the road to saving Whiskey Row after decades of neglect was a long one, which is why the fire has hit area preservationists incredibly hard—especially Marianne Zickuhr, the founder of Preservation Louisville, who helped lead the efforts to save Whiskey Row when in 2010 property owner Todd Blue announced his intent to demolish the buildings and develop the site.
Considering the architectural legacy of Whiskey Row and its significant role in Kentucky’s distilling history, the Louisville Landmark Commission was prompted by preservationists like Zickuhr to designate it a historic landmark in 2010, preventing its demolition.
"Whiskey Row was the very first preservation project that I ever worked on eight years ago," Zickuhr said. "It’s the reason that anyone here has heard about my little nonprofit. Just the other day I was in the liquor store and I walked by the glass case where they keep the bourbon—the really nice bourbon, you know—and there was a bottle called ‘Whiskey Row’ with a historic picture on the label. It made me cry; so Monday was really hard."
Chris Poynter, the director of communications for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, said that developers are intent on revitalizing the buildings and carrying through with the projects.
"Obviously it was a setback for Whiskey Row, but we are going to overcome it. The developers are still committed to that project, they will just have to reassess how to move forward," Poynter said.
He adds that while the cause of the fire is still unknown, and while developers will not be able to assess the full cost of the fire for a few days, a lot of damage was prevented thanks to the quick work of the Louisville Fire Department. They are expected to continue fighting hot spots until this evening.
Louisville Fire making slow but steady progress on extinguishing the blaze on Whiskey Row pic.twitter.com/ZaGTdRjuMH— Mayor Greg Fischer (@louisvillemayor) July 6, 2015
The physical buildings of Whiskey Row may burn, but our city's history can't be destroyed pic.twitter.com/V6HSWOAVf4— Mayor Greg Fischer (@louisvillemayor) July 7, 2015