Historical Marker #2104 in Louisville notes the historical significance of that city’s Main Street whiskey firms.
Louisville’s rise to become Kentucky’s largest city in the nineteenth century was due in large part to its location on the Ohio River. In addition, the invention of the steamboat, which could transport goods, services, and people up and down the river, boosted the city’s growth. On Louisville’s wharves crops such as hemp, corn, and livestock were loaded aboard all types of watercraft and sent to other Ohio River locations, including Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The goods were also shipped to Mississippi River destinations like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. In many instances, these items found their way to even more distant ports.
Another commodity that Kentucky produced in large quantities was various types of distilled spirits, particularly bourbon whiskey. Distilleries, especially those in central Kentucky, transported their barrels of whiskey by train or wagon to the Louisville market for sale and warehousing. Distillers established their businesses to capitalize upon a particular niche, specific to early Kentucky—grain surpluses. Kentucky’s rich soil could support large crops, but in the early days of the state’s development, there was not enough infrastructure to transport the weighty yields, and surpluses of corn, barley, and other grains built up quickly. Distillers found that they could buy these surpluses at low prices to make profitable whiskeys.
Main Street, just one block from the Ohio River, became so populated with whiskey firms by the 1840s that it was dubbed “Whiskey Row.” There, distilleries, warehouses, sales agents, and distributors all operated. Their various roles in the liquor market helped make Kentucky the leading producer of distilled spirits. Companies such as John T. Barbee and Company, Brown-Forman Company, Greenbrier Distillery Company, and Old Kentucky Distillery, among numerous others called Louisville’s Main Street home to their business offices.
Today, the distillery related businesses that once populated Whiskey Row are long gone, after closing due to Prohibition in the 1920s, but many of the buildings that they used have been restored and repurposed as luxury apartments, condominiums, restaurants, and retail businesses.