From the start of the distilling process to the last sip you take from a glass, water plays a critical role in the Kentucky bourbon experience, and local distillers rely on the Louisville Water Company.
“Historically, we relied on our limestone shelf to filter water — drawing out impurities that can cause bitterness,” says Brittany Allison, Executive Bourbon Steward and Economic Development Manager for Louisville Forward. “Now, we have the added benefit of top quality-control scientists on Louisville Water's team that constantly monitor our water supply for consistency,” she says.
Why is water quality important?
According to Louisville Water scientist Mark Campbell, "The calcium content and alkalinity of Louisville Water is good for bourbon production, but we also minimize levels of problematic metals, such as iron. While iron is not an issue until the barrel maturation process, it must be removed to maintain an acceptable color profile.”
How does water enhance the bourbon experience?
Even after bourbon is bottled, water plays a role in the way consumers experience it. According to Allison, “Water is a key ingredient in the tasting process. Whiskey connoisseurs will often taste a product neat first and then add a few drops of water or a cube of ice to see how the water changes the flavor dynamic and brings new flavors into recognition.”
“Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell instructed me to always taste the water when you travel to a new location,” she adds. “If the water is not bright, fresh and tasty, I order my bourbon neat. It’s easy to become a bit of a water snob when you are accustomed to drinking Louisville pure tap® at home.”
Which bourbons benefit from Louisville Water?
There are more than a dozen distilleries in Louisville Water’s service area. They include well-known companies such as Steitzel-Weller, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam, and they make a wide range of popular brands, including Elijah Craig, Evans Williams, Early Times and Old Forester, which was America’s first bottled bourbon and has been called Louisville’s “house bourbon.” (Locals even have given it an affectionate nickname: Old Fo ’.)
Louisville Water has an especially long relationship with Stitzel-Weller Distilling. Through the merger of two distilleries founded in the 1870s, Stitzel-Weller opened in Shively on Derby Day 1935. At first, the main water sources were wells, but chemical plants built in the area during World War II began drawing out large quantities of ground water, which ultimately became contaminated, so Stitzel-Weller and other nearby distilleries switched to city water.
Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992, but in 2014 the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller opened on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Louisville Water Company has worked with the Frontier Experience to enhance exhibit information on the importance of water to the overall distilling and bottling process. According to Kevin Didio, Manager of the Kentucky Visitor Experience at Stitzel-Weller, Louisville’s water provides “a great base to start distilling whiskies. There’s nothing in it to cause unpleasant tastes and odors. It’s iron free, and it tastes good.”
How does Louisville Water help Kentucky's signature industry grow?
Allison notes that “the bourbon industry is booming. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, production is up 315 percent since 1999. Louisville Water supports this growth by providing an abundant source of high quality water, and with a daily production rate of 121 million gallons, we don’t have to worry about our water supply’s ability to keep up with the growth.”