A Kentucky Kind of Welcome

Andy Treinen, Penny Peavler and Brigid Witzke.

The Frazier History Museum launches Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center and permanent ‘Spirit of Kentucky’ exhibition

By Remy Sisk

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

A project years in the making has at last been completed. As of Aug. 30, the Frazier History Museum is the official starting point to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and now asserts itself as such with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center and the permanent “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibition. True to its slogan, “Where the world meets Kentucky,” the Frazier is now a sort of gateway to one of Kentucky’s most renowned and recognizable assets, providing a place where locals and out-of-towners alike who are interested in America’s native spirit can come and begin their journey of discovery. While the welcome center may be a convenient resource for those looking to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the exhibit is a robust anchor for the museum, elevating its identity and illustrating its commitment to showcasing the best of Kentucky’s past and present.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center is a completely free experience located in the lobby of the Frazier. There is always a knowledgeable concierge on-site who is ready to offer advice and suggestions to folks thinking about heading out onto the bourbon trail. Prior to opening, the staff conducted deep research so that team members would be ready to help out with whatever was needed by guests, whether it be transportation, restaurants or sights to see along the way.  Additionally, they are poised to help build the perfect experience that’s completely suited to one’s needs. Should you, for example, only have a few hours, they can make informed recommendations that guarantee you’ll get the most out of the time you have to spend.

Moreover, there are interactive monitors visitors can use to virtually explore the bourbon trail, as well as a DRINKiQ station that helps guests learn how much alcohol they can safely drink along the way. The already impressive gift shop has expanded to include more bourbon-themed items for sale as well as plenty of bourbon itself. And all of this experience is, again, completely free of charge.

Before the welcome center opened, there was no formal start to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. But four or so years ago, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association decided there should be a physical place where the Trail could commence. Consequently, a host of individuals and organizations eventually came together to name the Frazier as the venue that would host the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center. “There was a variety of forces coming into play here,” recounts Frazier President and CEO Penny Peavler, “and a lot of synergy among the (Louisvile) Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Mayor’s Office, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Downtown Development Corporation and ultimately the Frazier Museum when the Frazier was selected to create this.”

Peavler emphasizes that, much like the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh or the Bordeaux Wine Experience in France, having this welcome center and exhibit really highlights how the history of Kentucky intersects with the history of bourbon and how that intersection has come to bring the bourbon story to fruition. “What these centers have done is really galvanized all the greats working in the tourism space around a common goal and common theme that is true and authentic to the sense of the place,” she says. “What I mean by that is bourbon is much more than a spirit to us in Kentucky. It’s about the people, it’s about the culture and it’s about the history. And when you start layering in the stories of hospitality, which we are well known for here, and our wonderful and diverse food ways and food traditions, it’s really a rich and multilayered story. And it’s a story that can be enjoyed by all generations.”

That story is told – and told beautifully – in the “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibition, which is included with museum admission. The exhibit, Peavler describes, has four goals: to position Kentucky as the authentic home of bourbon, to celebrate its makers, to spread the passion for bourbon and to become the encyclopedia of bourbon. In collaboration with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, as well as creative design firm Imagination, the Frazier team has achieved those goals extraordinarily.

The 9,500-square-foot highly interactive exhibit is divided into three chapters – Enchanted, Gracious and Refined, all three of which are aspects of bourbon. You enter it all across a bridge surrounded by sight and sound monitors that play a seemingly endless loop of video showcasing the beauty of rural, natural Kentucky. This not only shows visitors there’s more to Kentucky than bourbon and Louisville, but also that our spirit is completely derived from the natural earth.

In the first section of the exhibit, the focus is on all of the natural elements of Kentucky that make it the perfect place to produce bourbon. There’s information on the limestone and the water as well as the methods of transportation the industry has used over the years. There’s also a sensory experience where guests can smell charred oak, brown spice and orange peel – three common bourbon tasting notes – and see if they can connect those aromas to bourbon. And for fun, you can even stack your own (miniature-sized) bourbon barrel and learn how the pieces come together to make the whole.

The second chapter of the exhibit – Gracious – is without question the centerpiece of “Spirit of Kentucky.” In the center of the room is an enormous dining room table that actually is one gargantuan screen with which visitors can interact for hours. “If you know the people involved in the industry, there have been several examples of how if somebody has a problem, the others help them out,” offers Frazier Director of Marketing Andy Treinen. “So, how better to tell that gracious story than with a huge dining room, the place where we all meet? And at the center is this huge dining room table that is also a massive computer and content provider, and this is the technological marvel of the whole exhibition.”

Indeed it is. There are 10 individual stations at the table, and on the screen, portraits, logos and other images relating to bourbon history float by. When you see one you want to learn more about, you can pull it in to you and dive deep into the history and culture surrounding it. And if your friend has, say, George Garvin Brown pulled up and you have Jim Beam, a link will appear between the two stations explaining how George Garvin Brown and Jim Beam are connected. There are over 300 entries – all historically accurate – and the Frazier hopes for this to become the true encyclopedia of bourbon as it is representative of the spirit’s entire overarching history. Though all stations can run independently, there is also a driver function, which allows teachers or bourbon educators to lead seminars where every screen shows the same information.

Next is the Refined space in the exhibit, which features vintage bottles, branding and bourbon advertisements. It is also in this area that guests will discover the bottle wall – a stunning backlit display of every single bourbon currently in production in Kentucky. The room was designed with a forced perspective that makes it easy for visitors to get a photo in the room – the only place anywhere that you can get a photo with every bottle of Kentucky bourbon. And if you show the picture you take to certain distilleries once you hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you’ll be able to receive special deals and discounts. The exhibit concludes with a stop in the speakeasy, but you’ll have to find the way in for yourself.

Without question, this exhibit will be a glorious new anchor to the museum that locals will want to show off to their friends and family. “It’s highly interactive, it’s differentiated and it’s repeatable,” asserts Peavler, “so I hope it will be a place where Louisvillians will bring their out-of-town guests to give them a little experience of Kentucky hospitality and learn a little bit about the bourbon trail before they go out to one of the member distilleries and try the product and see how it’s made.”

The experience, as Peavler mentions, is eminently repeatable. There’s such a vast wealth of information that no two visits will be the same, and as Chief Curator Brigid Witzke hopes, once visitors get a taste of what the exhibit has to offer, they’ll want to keep coming back for more.  “As I’ve learned more about bourbon, I just want to know more, so I’m hoping that our visitors, when they come, will feel the same way – the more that they see, the more that they uncover, the more they’ll want to learn about it,” she enthuses. “And I hope that they get a different experience here than what they get at (other) visitor centers. There, you’ll get the brand’s story, and you see how they make their bourbon and why their bourbon is special, and those are great stories. But who’s telling the overarching story? We really want to be that place, and I hope that with this exhibit and the welcome center that we’re going to do that.”

The final aspect to this bourbon launch of sorts at the Frazier is improved bourbon programming. Treinen says that they hope to offer something bourbon-related every week, whether that’s bourbon education, tastings or bottle signings. But as he points out, everything here is only supplemental to what you’ll discover on the trail itself – its an enhancement to the experience, not a substitute for it. “Everything we’re doing is only additive to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” he affirms. “They already tell people how to make bourbon and they do an outstanding job of it. We’re adding value to that and adding to those experiences.”

The museum has established an unparalleled kickoff point, but it is only meant to set visitors on a path toward greater discovery.

“What I think the Frazier’s really becoming is a place that is truly a welcome center to Kentucky where you can come and learn about all the things Kentucky has to offer and then find out where else you can hear the rest of the story,” Peavler maintains. “For instance, in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center, you will come in and learn about those member distilleries, and then if you want to learn how bourbon is made and you really want to experience bourbon, then you must go out on the bourbon trail.” V