Derby Day has always been an auspicious date for bourbon. It was on that day in 1935, after all, when the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery opened in Kentucky, going on to craft some of the country’s most iconic bourbon including Pappy Van Winkle.
Fast-forward 83 years. On May 5, 2018, only a few hours after Justify crossed the finish line in the rainiest Kentucky Derby in history, the team behind Louisville’s newest distillery hosted a launch party for 350 guests at its pristine new facility. Kaveh Zamanian, the founder and whiskey maker of Rabbit Hole, had just learned about the Stitzel-Weller connection the day prior, which he thought made his event both serendipitous and full of good karma.
“Derby is a very special day for Louisville,” says Zamanian. “And for us, it was an opportunity to join the celebration in a meaningful way and showcase our distillery not only to Louisvillians but also guests and visitors from all over the world.”
Zamanian, an Iranian-American and former psychoanalyst, was turned on to bourbon when he was working in Chicago and dating his wife, Heather, a Kentucky native. He believes his 55,000-square-foot production facility, tasting room, cocktail bar and event space in the city’s trending NuLu neighborhood will be a game-changer for the industry, one that’ll make it modern, forward-thinking and accessible to all.
Once it’s fully operational, Rabbit Hole will have an annual production capacity of 1.2 million proof gallons (or 20,000 barrels), putting it on the top-20 list of the largest bourbon distilleries in the world. (The company has been producing spirits off-site since 2012 with the help of another distillery.)
But beyond its sheer size there are several striking aesthetic elements, part of the overall design by award-winning architect Youn Choi and Doug Pierson of pod architecture + design. Glass walls and exposed ceilings are joined by the focal point of the space, a 24-inch copper column still custom-built by nearby Vendome Copper & Brass Works. On opening night, guests mingled around that still, which is lit up at night and visible from both the facility’s interior and exterior. A third-floor event space called The Overlook offers incredible views of downtown Louisville and the Ohio River, and a large lenticular slatted sign out front morphs from the distillery’s name to a sketch of a rabbit depending on where you’re standing.
“I built the distillery with the hope to invoke a sense of awe and excitement about bourbon and American whiskey, to create a distillery that’s an architectural and engineering marvel like no other distillery in the country,” says Zamanian.
He describes opening night as a “whirlwind” of “pure joy,” a culmination of three years of planning and construction. “It’s not a celebration without family and friends, people who’ve been by my side for the last several years, seeing the project from a simple idea to reality,” he says. “We are now ready to start a new chapter, making whiskey in Rabbit Hole’s new home and sharing our vision and passion with our guests.”
Candlelit tables were set for dinner, running the length of the room that houses the stills for Rabbit Hole’s four products: bourbon, px-sherry-cask finished bourbon, rye and barrel-finished gin. Afterward, guests enjoyed live entertainment by Maggie Rose from CMT’s “Next Women of Country,” indie pop band Sucré and southern rock band Them Vibes.
But the real show was behind the bar, where Proprietors LLC, the group behind Death & Co. in New York City, were serving up four original cocktails as well as an obligatory Derby Day Mint Julep.
The Bad Habits & Rad Rabbits cocktail mixed Rabbit Hole’s spiced rye with Giffard Banane du Brésil liqueur, pineapple pandan gum syrup and Angostura bitters, garnished with cinnamon-pandan mint. The ’80s Hare Metal shook bourbon with passion fruit purée, Campari, lemon and Tahitian vanilla syrup. The Island Staycation infused Rabbit Hole’s gin with coconut flakes, then mixed it with lime and cucumber juices, and a coconut water syrup. And the Herb Your Enthusiasm let imbibers select any of Rabbit Hole’s spirits, to which was added liquid nitrogen herbs, lemon and lime juices, and simple syrup. On an ongoing basis, Proprietors LLC will be responsible for creating the cocktails at the distillery for private and public events.
Rabbit Hole will open to the public early this summer, Thursday through Saturday, during which time it will be offering a distillery tour, a sensory/tasting experience and the chance to purchase a cocktail afterward. For his part, Zamanian plans to focus on production and spend time in the R&D lab, working on new recipes and barrel finishes.
But mostly, he looks forward to welcoming and entertaining guests in his new home.