By Minda Honey
Kaitlyn Soligan and Nicole Stipp are Matson & Gilman. When naming their Bourbon Trail concierge service, they drew inspiration from the 2013 Fred Minnick book “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey.” Paying tribute to two high-spirited women who made history rebelling in the name of whiskey, Esther Matson and Livinia Gilman, is only appropriate for a duo that aims to share in defining the future of America’s native spirit by making visitors rethink everything they thought they knew about Kentucky – one trip at a time.
The two, whom I first met in January at a networking event for creatives, see themselves as storytellers. “To be able to say, ‘You’re eating at Harvest, which is owned by a farmer … or Rye, which has a garden out back and picks some of their own herbs for cocktails’ — those stories, you can’t find that on Trip Advisor,” says Stipp. “Our job is to tell those stories of those companies, and that’s what we have the most fun doing.”
Soligan adds, “What we also see as residents and small business owners is the question of ‘Who gets to tell the stories of what happens in this city and in this state?’ When we talk about the expectations people have of [Kentucky], it’s just the stories they hear, mostly being told by people that are being filtered through media that doesn’t have a presence here.” She continues, “We have the opportunity when they come out here and visit to disturb and upend those narratives and build new ones. So the question becomes, ‘What stories does the city of Louisville want to tell and how do we help Louisville tell those stories? How do we help the Bourbon Trail tell the amazing stories they want to tell?’”
“And the great thing is there are such amazing stories here,” says Stipp. “There are amazing businesses here that put that in the front. There are restaurants here where you can’t escape the fact that it’s farm-to-table. You can read the ham down to the county line. That is a part of the charm we help people find.”
They also celebrate what Soligan describes as Louisville’s “long history of taking in refugees and immigrant families.” It’s what makes it possible to make things happen in this city, “You can bring what you know here and use it to help make this city a better place.” Which is just what these two transplants have done — Soligan is from Massachusetts and Stipp grew up in Indiana.
Stipp points out, “The better Louisville does, the more dynamic and diverse that Louisville becomes and is, the more opportunities we have to bring diverse kinds of clients here.” And because the bourbon bubble isn’t expected to burst anytime soon, its reach will continue to expand, which will only add to the state’s growing tourism industry.
And it’s not just tourists that Matson & Gilman are playing guides for. They’ve also tailored their services toward locals, Soligan says. “We plan bachelor and bachelorette parties. We love to take that responsibility over for people. Let us do all of that work for you and all you have to do is go out and enjoy all of those great experiences because part of our job is knowing what’s happening right now that wasn’t happening a week ago. We like to put that knowledge to use for locals and friends.” They’re also the ones to turn to when you have out-of-town guests and need recommendations or are looking for a unique, unparalleled experience you wouldn’t be able to arrange on your own.
The business partners — whose decade-long friendship started in D.C. and took them to Kigali, Rwanda, and New York City before landing them in Louisville — credit their time as executive assistants as the secret to their success because they know the right questions to ask. Soligan says that at the start of their careers, “We were dealing with high-end, high-touch clients all the time who had very specific things that they wanted. They have resources, but not the time.”
Stipp agrees, “Our job is to help direct people toward the places with the closest experience to what they want.” They know the most Instagram-able distilleries, the distilleries where you can linger over a cocktail for several hours and the insider logistics info like which distilleries have food and which don’t and how many distilleries you can see in a day — they recommend three max. Stipp explains, “[Distilleries] make the bourbon where you’re visiting, so there’s a limited amount of time you can spend,” plus the distilleries are spaced out. Pro-tip from Soligan: Get going early: “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”
Matson & Gilman is full-service from the itinerary to transportation to handling any issues you might have during your trip — yes, they’ll even pick up your dry cleaning for you. For clients interested in a less hands-on experience, they can design your itinerary and send you on your way, or you can book a Q&A phone session to save you hours and hours of Google searches. Stipp has even been known to create bar guides for clients and entire neighborhood maps. One of her favorite suggestions is a “Two Sides of Louisville” tour that begins in the courtyard at Holy Grale and ends at one of Louisville’s most beloved dive bars, The Back Door. They can also create a custom niche experience for you and your party. Looking for a LGBTQ-friendly trip? They can plan that. Only want to spend your time at women-owned businesses? Not a problem. Struggling to find places that are open on Monday? They have a list for you. Just give them a budget and they will work closely with you to plan a memorable experience.
Although Matson & Gilman held their launch party in February, they started accepting clients late last year. One of their earliest tours landed them in a Forbes travel guide. They’ve gained most of their business by word of mouth — always a good sign —but clients have also been able to get in touch with them through their website at matsongilman.com.
I’ll share two more tips from the experts: 1. Soligan says, “Eat local and ask the bartender. The bars around here have things you can’t get anywhere else.” 2. Stipp says, “If you’re not a bourbon drinker, don’t sweat it.” They’re not bourbon snobs and will help you find the bourbon for you, and if that’s not appealing to you, Soligan suggests eating your bourbon instead, specifically, “The bourbon bread pudding at Missy Hillock’s Chateau Bourbon.”
Soligan and Stipp have been surprised by, and incredibly appreciative of, how quickly their business idea, dreamed up on Soligan’s porch over glasses of bourbon, has taken off. Where is Matson & Gilman headed? Stipp says they’re measuring their success in their own way: “Have we been able to open up new conversations about bourbon, bring new people into bourbon … bring more people of color onto the trail? … How many more people can Matson & Gilman reach in whatever way works?” It sounds like, in due time, Fred Minnick might find himself adding a Soligan and Stipp chapter to his next book about the history of whiskey women. VT