Falling Down the Rabbit Hole to Modernize Bourbon

Images: Rabbit Hole Distilling (Rabbit Hole Distilling Co. whiskey bottles)

Rabbit Hole Distillery—already crafting award-winning spirits—will offer an immersive whiskey experience for visitors.

On a sunny morning last August, I made my way over to Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky. There, fourth-generation owner Mike Sherman walked me through the facility, which has crafted continuous and copper pot stills for more than 128 years. (Ninety-five percent of all American whiskey, he told me, is made in Vendome stills.)

That day though, it was all about Rabbit Hole, the highly anticipated upcoming bourbon distillery and entertainment complex scheduled to open in early 2018. The team mingled about anxiously, awaiting their just-completed, shiny new 24-inch copper column still to be secured on a flatbed trailer, driven down Main Street, and installed at the distillery in the heart of the city’s quirky NULU neighborhood.

Construction at the distillery is set to wrap up in March, followed by a soft open for those in the industry in April and a grand opening on Derby weekend—quite an auspicious date. At the helm of it all is founder and CEO Kaveh Zamanian, a native Iranian who went on to become a psychoanalyst in Chicago before he fell in love with bourbon—and the woman who introduced him to it. (He was pulled down a veritable rabbit hole, he says, that he may never have ventured down otherwise.) Now, he’s planning on crafting stellar spirits at his facility (spirits that are currently sourced and produced elsewhere and already winning awards.) Zamanian hopes his venture will modernize and make more inclusive an industry that’s traditionally been seen as “born and bred” American, especially in Kentucky.

“The evolution of [the] distillery, its rise from nothing to what it is, watching it every day is indescribable,” he told me. “[It’s] absolutely thrilling and surreal, thinking that my dream is coming to life.”

For, sure, the project is ambitious. Its 55,000 square feet will encompass a grain-to-glass production facility, visitors’ center, tasting room, retail shop, event space, restaurant and cocktail bar. (Zamanian is partnering with Proprietors LLC, the owners of famed bar Death & Co. in New York, for the cocktails.) And it’ll join a handful of other spots on the city’s Urban Distillery Train, including Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Angel’s Envy and Peerless, with Michter’s and Old Forester set to open soon too. All of this means aficionados will no longer have to venture far out of the city limits to tour and taste on the traditional Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Rabbit Hole Distilling Co. bottle and cocktail on a bar - Falling Down the Rabbit Hole to Modernize Bourbon

After the still was loaded up and secured that morning, it slowly traveled a few blocks to the spot where it’ll make bourbon, rye, gin—and whatever else Zamanian has up his sleeve. Those of us there to witness the occasion followed on foot, then watched as the shiny copper column was set down via a crane amid the framed-out walls. Eventually, it’ll be the entire focal point, surrounded by glass, always in view when you are inside the space, and what Zamanian refers to as the “crown jewel” among the tanks; at night, it will glow like a lantern, a shrine to the craft of whiskey.

I donned a hard hat and walked around the site with Doug Pierson of pod architecture + design, the design principal and project manager. Formerly with several other prestigious firms including Gehry Partners, LLP in Los Angeles, Pierson touts a bevy of experience that lies in the modern, contemporary and progressive—including The Green Building, the first LEED Platinum building in Louisville.

At Rabbit Hole, Pierson is interpreting Zamanian’s philosophy of “transparency and craft” through elements including a pathway for the guided tour that incorporates all the steps involved in bourbon production without being disruptive to the process, “not just the sexy bits,” he told me. Lots of large windows provide sweeping views of the river and downtown, driving home a feeling of connectivity to the neighborhood.

Distilleries, Pierson told me, tend to have a connotation to manufacturing, whereas wineries are more evocative of a “sexy landscape.” Rabbit Hole is designed to turn that notion on its head, with both the sacred and the profane, as he calls them, on full display in an ultra-stylized yet functional way, to educate Americans about and celebrate their native spirit.

I wrapped up the morning by sitting down to taste through the spirits (currently being produced elsewhere and transparently stated so) with master distiller Cameron Talley, whose pedigree includes former distillery supervisor at Wild Turkey and production manager for Old Forester and Early Times. Rabbit Hole Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (which scored Double Gold in the New York International Spirits Competition and won Best in Show) is made from Zamanian’s mash bill recipe, where 10% each of malted barley, malted wheat and honey malted barley complement the corn notes. It’s matured more than two years in charred white oak from Kelvin Cooperage, who wood-fires their barrels instead of using gas for a smokier, more authentic flavor; the overall effect is a balanced blend of fruit, wood, grains and vanilla.

Rabbit Hole Distilling Co. whiskey bottles on a barrel - Falling Down the Rabbit Hole to Modernize Bourbon

Their Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (also a Double Gold winner in New York) is crafted with 95% rye, and 5% malted barley, and undergoes the same maturation regimen as their bourbon. It comes across with rye’s signature spiciness, but more along the lines of cinnamon and licorice rather than black pepper, along with dried fruits and a distinctive floral tone.

Talley calls their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in PX Sherry Casks an after-dinner sipper, with rich caramel, creme brûlée and red fruits sumptuously coating the palate. And a sourced lavender- and violet-tinged London Dry gin spends six months in Kentucky rye barrels, where it picks up color, body and a spicy fennel finish; Talley deemed it great in a Martini with Dolin Vermouth, garnished with an olive. I’d love it in a Negroni, too.

Currently, all distillery equipment has been delivered, and the team is working on getting the internal sections finished. The next stage of completion, Zamanian told me, is delivery and installation of the glazing and glass for the atrium core, which houses the manufacturing side and will be wrapped in glass and wood. “There are a lot of moving parts, and managing all the parts and pieces is extremely challenging,” Zamanian says. “We remain a spartan crew; everyone is excited and [is] putting their heart and soul in it.”

Start making your travel plans to Louisville. This place is going to be a game changer.


Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.