Bourbon Heritage Month: Q&A with America’s Bourbon Mayor


September 1, 2013

When I listened to Greg Fischer during a 2010 mayoral debate, bourbon didn’t come up. But, little did he or anybody else know that the whiskey would become one of his most-successful platforms. Since taking office, Fischer has done more for the bourbon industry than any mayor in a half century. From saving Whiskey Row to embracing bourbon’s heritage, Fischer is without a doubt “America’s Bourbon Mayor.” So, I dropped my wallet in the security bin, stepped through the mayor office metal detector and walked four flights of stairs at 527 W. Jefferson St. to interview Fischer about the State of Bourbon in Louisville.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (left) meets with Jefferson's Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller at the St. Charles Exchange in downtown Louisville. Photo by Fred Minnick.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (left) meets with Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller at the St. Charles Exchange in downtown Louisville. Photo by Fred Minnick.

When the University of Louisville’s Men’s and Women’s basketball teams made the NCAA Final Four, you made bets with the other mayors. If you lost, you’d send bourbon.  You won. Did the other mayors pay up?

The mayor of Wichita came through {with beef and barbecue sauce}. The mayor of Berkeley’s wine has not shown up. I’ve been conflicted whether I should call him back. In the Michigan {men’s national championship} game, we tried to make a bet, but the mayor did not return our phone calls.

You’ve embraced bourbon in a big way. Talk about why bourbon is important to the Louisville culture.

Bourbon has such an authentic story. We live in this conflicted era where people are addicted to fast and digital, but they still yearn for a slow, authentic experience. Bourbon has an awesome heritage. From the mayor seat, I look at bourbon as an opportunity to introduce the quality of life in Louisville. How can we optimize it for the good of our citizens?

The previous mayor did not embrace bourbon like you. Did Mayor Abramson miss an opportunity?

The timing was different then. {In 2010}, the bourbon trail was really emerging and was obvious to promote for tourism and jobs. Bourbon visitors are staying in hotels and going to our great restaurants—that’s huge for our economy and vibe for our city. As the mayor, I just say: How can I help?

Why did you push for action on Whiskey Row?

I wasn’t going to wait forever. The buildings could have collapsed and those beautiful buildings would be gone. I forced action, and it was controversial because they could have been demolished. I thought all along a deal could have been made. By putting a deadline out there for a decision, we forced action and a fantastic group of partners came together that saved Whiskey Row. …. When that whole block is done, I think it will be one of the greatest blocks in America.

It’s now often referred to as Bourbon Row instead of Whiskey Row. Do you support this name change?

What’s important is all groups are on the same page. Working with City’s Visitors Bureau, Kentucky Distillers Association and Louisville Downtown Development Corporation, we put $100,000 for planning purposes to make sure we’re unified. Bourbon tells the story of America. How do you tell this on a streetscape? That’s what we’re trying to do.

You’re a politician. ….

Whoa, I’m not a politician. I’m a business guy who happens to be mayor.

Okay, there are other elected officials who continue to push a dry agenda in Kentucky that negatively impacts the bourbon industry. Do you ever reach out to dry county politicians about easing up on state bourbon taxes?

My thing is to be a business friendly mayor and state. But I haven’t gotten into the specifics of taxing of bourbon.

In your short tenure, several new distilleries have announced plans for downtown Louisville. What are you doing to get them into Louisville?

We assist them in anyway we can and want to remove any obstacles.

Should the Kentucky Bourbon Festival be in Louisville instead of Bardstown?

Bardstown has a great tradition. You’re seeing more activities with bourbon here, but Bardstown is an easy 45 minutes. Bardstown is a magical town.

Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and Diageo reached a settlement about whiskey fungus in which they agreed Diageo would move barrels aging whiskey a half mile. What are your thoughts on the settlement?

I was glad there was a settlement and optimistic it’s been settled. I would hope everybody can coexist in a healthy way.

With the growth of bourbon in this city, do you have concerns about whiskey fungus litigation that potentially threatens production in Louisville?

We’re in a litigious society and I think that’s what we see there. These things usually get resolved, and we’ll continue celebrate bourbon here.

If the plaintiffs win, could bourbon still exist at its current level in Louisville?

The bourbon companies are responsible, community-oriented and proactive. These companies are the best corporate citizens, so I have a lot of confidence regardless of challenges.

Let’s move on to what’s in the bottle. How often are you asked for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle?

About once a month. … People are always talking to me about bourbon whenever I’m traveling, and I’m amazed how much knowledge people have. If this were a baseball game, bourbon is in the second inning from an international and local perspective. We’re just in the very beginning.

Do you have a favorite style—high rye or wheated bourbon?

All of the above. There are so many different bourbons coming out. About a month after I was elected, a distiller dropped off a bottle. Within two months, everybody dropped off a bottle.

Do you ever drink bourbons from other states?

I will not foul my mouth with anything not from the commonwealth of Kentucky.