Old Forester Distillery – The Importance of Collaboration

by Ben Gries, PE, LEED AP


The recently completed Old Forester Distillery is a testament to the need for collaboration throughout the design and construction process. This project combines historical construction, customer experience, sophisticated industrial processes, sustainable design and high hazard materials into one aesthetic package. There may not be another facility that combines the amount of technology, uses, processes, equipment and consumers that this building does in 60,000 square feet.

The building process began more than 3.5 years ago, if you include the initial idea for the project and the time to organize it into a real venture. The design team started on the project in early 2014. There were numerous meetings between the owner, architects and engineers, to understand the vision and goals.

Several things were decided early on: The project would be located on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville in a building that had been occupied by Brown-Forman early in its history; the facility would combine as many steps as possible in the creation of bourbon; and the building was to be designed around the experience of the bourbon-making process.

Designing a distillery in an urban environment is no small feat. The site placed it inside the confines of a historical structure that was neighbored by adjoining buildings and streets. In addition, the facility would include fermentation, cooperage (barrel making), barrel charring (that’s right, open flames in a building that produces alcohol), distillation, barrel-aging warehouse, bottling, retail space, tasting rooms, offices, event and catering space, outdoor roof patio, a 4-story atrium and a bar. Early on, it seemed the project was an impossible venture.

But, as the owners and design team worked together, the building took shape. Spaces were carefully arranged according to the desired consumer experience and the bourbon-making process. Every room was carefully coordinated. Lighting complemented the finishes. HVAC was hidden. Process equipment was accentuated. All aspects of the building were carefully planned to accommodate the desired uses and project goals.

The team was critical to the success of the project. The owners provided the vision and goals. The project manager never ceased in helping the design team interpret the vision. The architect led the design team throughout the entire process. His devotion to the project and attention to detail ensured all disciplines were coordinated and the owner’s intent was met. The contractors were introduced to the project at an early stage, prior to the completion of construction documents, which allowed them to assist with budgeting and scheduling to help establish the reality of the project.

A project of this scope and detail goes through many iterations and challenges, and this one was no different. The design phase lasted about 1.5 years. The project varied from six floors to five floors and back to six. A five-star restaurant and full-service kitchen were planned and removed. A two-story waterfall and bridge across grain bins were designed and eliminated. Construction started before the design was complete to help meet schedule. Then the building next door caught fire and caused delay. Structures had to be stabilized, schedules rearranged and construction restarted.

Coordination between the owner, contractors, design team and equipment lasted for the next 2 years. It started with submittal review and 3D coordination and ended with punchlists and commissioning. The owner, design and construction team met for months to review every aspect of the building and design to ensure all issues were resolved prior to construction. This effort was well spent, as many items were sorted out prior to installation, saving time and money. As construction continued, regular meetings ensured good communication between the team. Along the way, changes were made to the project scope, uses added and taken away. Throughout the project, the team communicated, coordinated and persevered.

The grand opening of the building, 3.5 years after the project started, was a fantastic celebration of importance of owner, design and construction team coordination. The project goals were met, consumer experience of the bourbon-making process is exceptional, the architecture and attention to detail is impeccable and the building functions completely as intended. A successful project, a successful team and a successful example of collaboration.