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The Light in the Barrel

Proper illumination of a distillery – that’s also a museum that’s also an experience – proves to be a design and engineering challenge



Kentucky is bourbon country, and the appreciation of that industry has helped revive the downtown area in Louisville, the state’s largest city. The most recent tribute to bourbon history is the Old Forester Distilling Co., a branded homage to the first bottled bourbon brand created by the Louisville-based Brown-Forman Co.

The setting is on the city’s original business thoroughfare, a block from the Ohio River, called the West Main Street Historic District – or, popularly, Whiskey Row. It’s a collection of the still-standing cast iron-framed buildings from the 19th century, including the one in which Brown-Foreman got its start in 1870.

While most of these branded bourbon experiences were created as fun, historical museums, Brown-Foreman added another dimension: There’s a functioning distillery in the building that’s part of the tour.

“We wanted to showcase the proud history of the company, but also to demonstrate how Old Forester is still a premium bourbon today,” says Shawn Hadley, Brown-Forman’s Director, Experiential Design. “It required cramming a lot of information into the tour in a multisensory way.”

After the architectural challenges of restoring the building had been met, the distillery components had been installed and the informational markers had been placed along the walking tour, the challenges of how best to light the experience had to be addressed.

“It was more challenging than a normal project for us,” says Michael Cummings of Focus Lighting (New York), Co-Principal Designer of the project, “mostly due to the various uses of the spaces – hospitality, retail, museum and industrial – through which we were trying to create a continuous line.”


Among the biggest challenges was lighting the rickhouse, where the bourbon barrels sit and age. According to Brett Andersen, Focus Lighting’s other Co-Principal Designer, “Traditional rickhouses don’t have a lot of lighting in them, because vapors from the barrels can cause fixtures to explode.” But traditional rickhouses also don’t have hundreds of visitors a day walking through them.

Focus designed an explosion-proof stem fixture on the ceiling, shrouded to control the glare but with enough light to display the barrel stock.

LEDs were used throughout the facility, for everything from focused illumination to dramatic ambient effects. “This project is many different things,” notes Andersen, “all with lighting solutions that are quite at odds between them. We managed to check all those boxes.” 


Old Forester Distilling Co., Louisville, Ky.

Lighting Design
Focus Lighting, New York: Brett Andersen, Principal Lighting Designer; Joshua Spitzig, Senior Lighting Designer; Justin Keenan Miller, Lighting Designer; David Kinkade, Project Manager


Imagination, Dearborn, Mich.

Bravura Architects, Louisville, Ky.

General Contractor
Messer Construction, Cincinnati

Photography: Ryan Fischer, New York



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