Louisville Business Leaders Come To Stumptown For Ideas

Louisville Business Leaders Come To Stumptown For Ideas

By Savannah Weinstock / November 9, 2015

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Kentucky Distillers Association as being funded by government. It is actually self funded by its member distilleries. The Whiskey Wash regrets the error.

In mid-October Portland had the pleasure of hosting a group of approximately 100 business people from Louisville, Kentucky, eager to learn what Bridge City could teach them about its burgeoning food and beverage scene. Under the umbrella of Greater Louisville Inc., or GLI, Louisville-area business leaders make an annual trip in the name of learning. This year, that trip, called the Greater Louisville Idea Development Expedition, was to Portland.

During their trip, delegates enjoyed tours, seminars, and panels with some of Portland’s bigger names in local business, and successful local entrepreneurs. GLI delegates attended a number of events, including a tour of the new House Spirits space; panels regarding innovation and entrepreneurialism led by the CEO of Revant Optics Jason Bolt, Wildfang CEO Emma Mcilroy, and Salt & Straw’s Kim Malek; “The Portland Beverage Experience” led by Ted Pappas and Lee Medoff, and more. Of obvious interest to us is the last of that list: “The Portland Beverage Experience,” which discussed the challenges and successes of the Portland area’s 60+ breweries and distilleries that span the Oregon-Washington border.

I had the pleasure of hosting a brief round-table discussion with the VP of Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs Kevin Smith, beverage lawyer Jeffrey McKenzie, Kentucky Distillers’ Association Director of Governmental and Regulatory Affairs Kristin Meadors, and GLI representative Sarah Davasher-Wisdom. -They discussed topics ranging from regulatory differences between Portland and Louisville for distilleries, tasting rooms, and bars; the craft spirit and beer boom in the Northwest and beyond; the system of “Heritage Distilleries” in Kentucky, and the lack of systemic organization for distillers and industry members in Oregon.

Portland's Distillery Row

image via Oregon Distillers Guild

One challenge I have heard repeated over and over again in the Portland distilling scene has been the unusual difficulty of zoning for and constructing new distillery spaces in the face of outdated city regulation. However, Portland distillers are allowed to tack a tasting room and on-premises liquor sales onto a production distillery, a structure not currently allowed in Louisville. Louisville’s famed “Urban Bourbon Trail” does not include any tasting rooms or distillery tours.

This reality is one that Meadors lamented in our discussion, noting that one of the biggest things she took away from her time in Portland was the appeal of the city’s craft distilleries’ tasting rooms. From a tourism perspective, Portland’s own Distillery Row appears to be a significant draw due to the hands-on feel of the experience and the ability to interact directly with distilleries. In Louisville, most tourists taste local spirits only in a bar or restaurant setting.

Another element of Portland’s local spirits scene that was attractive to the group was the architecture and design of local distilleries. Smith noted that the new House Spirits building was “made to be shown off,” giving the feel of not simply a production space, but a wholly integrative experience. Only officially opened during Portland Cocktail Week, House Spirits was able to give the GLI group a sneak peak of the space.

Although the visiting group saw many trends in town that they hoped to replicate or learn from, one weakness they noticed was the overall lack of communication among those in the industry. Meadors noted that the lack of organization within the industry in Portland and throughout Oregon was something that had room for improvement. This is another issue I have heard from those in the industry: communication is not prioritized. The Kentucky Distillers Association, with a full-time staff of five who help to coordinate and promote the entire whiskey culture of Kentucky, is a self-funded trade association for many of the distilleries in that state. They have a level of organization which is extremely well structured and heralds back to their founding in 1880.

Looking to the future, the group noted the craft spirits industry has experienced its fair share of boom, but has yet to “bust.” With a small percentage of failure realized (or at least publicized) within the craft distilling and brewing industry, the appeal to entering the industry is strong. However, locally we have had our own increasing share of craft spirits producers fold under the pressure. Meadors noted that in Louisville there have already been those who have done the legwork to obtain all of the necessary licenses for distilling, but have yet to follow through and actually distill anything. Smith noted that many groups hoping to become craft distillers do not understand the financial challenges of starting a distillery, and lack the flow of capital needed for such an undertaking. The group also mentioned their concern for craft distillers’ lack of influence and ability to effectively distribute their product.

With the thought clearly in mind that, in order to move forward as a booming industry, Portland distillers need to organize in order to influence, the group wished our fair city’s beverage community luck. As Meadors aptly noted regarding the industry, “the rising tide carries all seaworthy ships.”


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