Your tour guide, Boomer, doesn’t look like a bourbon snob. Dressed in shorts and a golf shirt, he has a deep ruddy suntan except for a pale mask around his eyes left by the wraparound sunglasses, now perched on his shock of white hair. But—as he leads you through the Wild Turkey distillery in rural Lawrenceburg, Kentucky—he knows his product. “From the Reserve, you’re going to get a lot of vanilla and toffee with a nice oaky finish,” he recites with a practiced tone. A second variety offers “a dry smokiness,” while another, “I use that in my chili,” Boomer announces, switching out of his connoisseur’s affectation. “But the rest of the recipe is a secret.”
To advertise the brand’s evolution on Kentucky’s distillery tourism circuit, known as the Bourbon Trail, Campari held a competition, inviting five architects to design a new visitor center for Wild Turkey’s 800-acre campus. The company selected Louisville firm De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, one of RECORD’s Design Vanguard winners (RECORD, December 2010). The firm designed a 9,000-square-foot building that contains a reception area, gift shop, exhibition space, and tasting room in a long, gable-sided form with full-height windows on one side. Picture an elongated Monopoly house on a steep hillside above the Kentucky River, where the distillery gets its water.
The abstracted gable has become something of an architectural trope, a stock strategy for nodding to a homy vernacular while invoking a prim, clean-edged modernism. Architects Roberto De Leon and M. Ross Primmer have turned to the form in previous projects, inspired by the region’s tobacco barns. With the Wild Turkey visitor center, the designers used it to court both longtime drinkers and new converts. “We were after something that could be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time,” says de Leon.
The building’s sharp profile and distinct coloration set it off from its neighbors, including the distillery itself and the large rick houses, where barrels of aging bourbon are stored. The firm clad the structure with black-stained cypress, hung in a chevron pattern that continues in a lattice shading the upper part of the window walls. “From a distance, it’s a banal box,” says Primmer. “But then you get up close and see the shifting lines.”
The firm designed the interior to host several moments in the sequence of a distillery tour inside one open volume. At the main entrance, visitors encounter an airy space with trusses in the hybrid steel-and-wood frame structure exposed overhead. A barn crossed with a cathedral, it’s a fitting point of departure for a bourbon pilgrimage. They are greeted at a reception desk—watched over by three stuffed turkeys roosting in perpetuity on a high shelf—and can sign up for tours of the distillery and immediately begin browsing in the adjacent gift shop. The firm used natural wood throughout the interior, including a handsome rough-cut ash; the tasteful finishes fight with kitschy memorabilia and some country-cute decorating touches, but ultimately reach a livable détente.
Moving down a ramp, visitors pass an exhibition wall that presents the brand’s history. At the bottom, they arrive among a cluster of reconfigurable display kiosks and a 20-foot-tall antique copper still. Here, visitors wait for a bus to take them to the distillery.
After touring the whiskey-making facility, visitors return for a culminating ritual. A ramp, partially enclosed by wooden louvers, ascends through the heart of the interior. Part church vault, part bourbon barrel, it opens triumphantly onto a lofty mezzanine level with sweeping views of the Kentucky landscape. There visitors sample Wild Turkey’s products while gazing over the river. “The tour is a kind of procession,” says de Leon. “There’s never really a moment of stasis until you get to the tasting room.”
Waiting for Boomer’s tour, two men in head-to-toe camo and sporting Duck Dynasty beards browsed the history exhibition, while an urbane 30-something chatted with his father, and a suburban couple with two young daughters compared the facility to others they had visited—very different groups, united by bourbon. Whether the building reads as a savvy update of a heritage brand or as an affirmation of Wild Turkey’s connection to rural America is in the eye of the beholder. And with that ambiguity, De Leon & Primmer precisely fulfilled their mission.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
9,000 square feet