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Diageo welcoming visitors at historic distillery

Historic Stitzel-Weller distillery is the newest stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Historic Stitzel-Weller distillery is the newest stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Liquor giant Diageo PLC said Monday it is opening a visitors' center at Stitzel-Weller, part of a $10 million investment that includes a new bottling line and a small batch craft still that will bring whiskey production back to the distillery southwest of downtown Louisville.

The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller becomes the ninth stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. London-based Diageo, which owns the distillery, officially opens its attraction to tourists on Tuesday.

"Stitzel-Weller is hallowed ground for bourbon aficionados and one of the true cathedrals of American whiskey," Gregory said. "It has been home to many of the industry's iconic brands, innovators and true characters."

It's steeped in Kentucky heritage, from its 1935 opening on Kentucky Derby Day to its role as home to historic brands crafted by bourbon barons during its heyday.

More than 570,000 people visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail last year, up 15 percent from the prior year, Gregory said. Including visitors to a trail for craft distilleries, total attendance at Kentucky distilleries topped 630,000 he said.

Each visitor spends an average of $700, he said.

It's the second Kentucky Bourbon Trail stop in the Louisville area. Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., which makes Evan Williams bourbon, opened a downtown attraction called the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that includes tours, a craft distillery and a multistory Evan Williams bottle replica.

Stitzel-Weller opened soon after Prohibition and was home to such brands as Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell. The distillery was run decades ago by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr., the namesake for what's become one of the most sought-after bourbons produced in Kentucky.

"We're the heirs of Pappy Van Winkle and certainly the great brands that were distilled here through the years with unbelievable expertise," said Tom Bulleit, founder of Bulleit Bourbon, now owned by Diageo.

Whiskey production ended years ago at Stitzel-Weller, which has been used for whiskey storage. The grounds include 18 weather-worn warehouses that store about 400,000 barrels of aging whiskey. Tom Bulleit's office is on the grounds.

Visitors will get a look at a warehouse and the cooperage which remains unchanged since 1935. The attraction will be open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Diageo — whose brands include Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness — is building a distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky, a $115 million project scheduled to start production in late 2016. The distillery will churn out up to 750,000 9-liter cases per year.

With the investments, Diageo has significantly upped its ante in the bourbon sector.

Seven years ago, the Bulleit brand struggled with yearly case sales of about 40,000. Since then, annual sales of Bulleit bourbon and rye whiskeys have surged to 600,000 cases, and Diageo has set a short-term goal of reaching 1 million cases.

"To maximize the potential of Bulleit going forward and globalize Bulleit, I think, is the biggest opportunity that we have," Larry Schwartz, president of Diageo's North American operations, said Monday. "Bourbon is doing very well in North America but it's doing very well around the world. And we have a great route to market in many markets around the world."