Kentucky (WBKO) -- If you've spent any time at all in Kentucky, you've heard of the Bourbon Trail, but did you know in the past five years, it's popularity has exploded?
For the second year in a row, more than one-million people from all over the world have taken the tour, which now includes some 23 distilleries throughout the commonwealth. It's even being called the Napa Valley of bourbon, expected to pour $10-billion into the Kentucky economy in 2020.
"Everybody says we're gonna be the next Napa Valley," says Heaven Hill General Manager of Visitors Services, Jeff Crowe. "I think we're already a step above Napa Valley cuz we work really well together at the bourbon industry. If you go from any of the visitors' centers or any of the distilleries here in Louisville or Bardstown or Lexington, we all cross promote each other." That cooperation created the Bourbon Trail, and now it's expanding every year.
"Distilleries have become more than just places that make bourbon. They've become tourist destinations. In fact, Heaven Hill is way ahead of the curve, when they created the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience here in Louisville 5 years ago."
Jeff Crowe says, "So we wanted to be the first distillery back on Whiskey Row in over 100 years. So in November of 2013 we opened the doors to our public and it's been an explosion here in this facility and along Whiskey Row ever since."
The drive behind Heaven Hill, is family. Started by the five Shapira brothers, and three generations later: "We're going to show their history, Jeff says, "so people really realize it's a true family, a real family that comes to work every day just like the 700 other employees at Heaven Hill with the same passion."
Nestled in the rolling hills outside Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, Four Roses distillery is seeing more visitors than ever before, by making it a very personal experience. "And particularly for Four Roses," says Four Roses Chief Operating Officer, Ryan Ashley, "those one-on-one relationships where people can meet with the people that make the bourbon, the master distiller, they can do mingling, blending, pick their own single barrel."
"Here in the Four Roses tasting room, we learned that in the past 10 years the Kentucky bourbon industry has doubled the number of jobs, doubled the amount of its payroll, and doubled its tax revenue, and they're just getting started."
"And I think specifically for Four Roses'" says Ryan, "because we have such a beautiful facility. It's such a unique looking building, and a unique looking distillery that it really captivates people so."
"And we often refer to the location as the Bourbon Disneyland. People are excited to get here, and it's neat. They make a pilgrimage. They come from all over the place."
And other businesses are now benefiting from the Bourbon Trail Boom.
"You'll see bed and breakfasts," Ryan says. "Bed, breakfast, and bourbons popping up; hotels that have bourbon themes, speak easy's, restaurants, food and bourbon pairings."
"I think the Kentucky Distillers Association just put out a number that said we've experienced 357% growth in the amount of people doing the trail. Last year was just over a million people," Ryan told me.
"Being able to talk proudly about the history and heritage of Kentucky," adds Heaven Hills' Jeff Crowe. "It's a nice bright light that's shining on us for the first time in a long time."
Perhaps Ryan Ashley with Four Roses said it best, "We are part of something that we are never gonna see again in our careers. And probably not for generations."
Four Roses just doubled the size of its distillery, adding a bottling facility at Cox's Creek, and another warehouse in which to age their bourbon. And that doesn't even include their 5,000 square foot enhanced visitors' center.
And Heaven Hill has just announced a $17-1/2 million renovation to their visitors' center in Bardstown. That should be open to the public in early 2021.