Amidst the rolling landscapes of Kentucky, a unique transformation is underway. Bourbon, the state's liquid treasure, is not just a drink but a powerful tool for nurturing local economies. The story begins with Eddie Fieldhouse III, a visionary inspired by the remarkable role bourbon and tourism played in his life. He recognized a pressing issue within the industry: the need for a comprehensive platform to streamline visitor experiences and empower local communities. Drawing from his deep love for the culture of Kentucky and the storytelling magic of bourbon, Eddie set out to create a solution.
In this Q&A, Eddie shares his journey, his vision for the Kentucky Hug, and how bourbon tourism goes beyond sips and swirls to create lasting connections and drive local prosperity.
How did you become interested in tourism (and bourbon)?
EF: Storytelling has always played a huge place in my life. From the stories we tell ourselves to the stories we tell others, tourism represents the formal collective story of community. My interest in tourism grew out of my college experience and the need to connect with a sea of people who did not value my experience. I attended the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Maryland, beginning in the summer of 2009, well before Bourbon had its comeback. It was my first time living away from home, and I was one of only two people from Kentucky at my college. Many of my colleagues and teachers turned my upbringing into a punchline. My teeth, my shoes, and my public education were often used as the counter to so many of the students I was in classes with. It was hard to get people to value my unique Kentucky perspective. Bourbon and Tourism later corrected all of those challenges.
It wasn’t until my Junior year when I was hosting a party for my friends, that I went to the liquor store for libations. As I walked past aisles of crystal clear vodka, yellow-tinted tequila, 100 shades of rum, and malt liquor, I stumbled into the Bourbon aisle. It was an amber sea that seemed to glow next to its counterparts. Every label was elegant, crisp, and saturated with color—touting history, legacy, and exceptionalism. For the first time, I knew how I would be able to break through the stereotypes I was subject to. I grabbed the dark chestnut, mostly glass bottle of Bulleit single barrel with its strappy black and orange label touting the words “Frontier Whiskey.” Upon returning to the party, the bottle and the spirit inside gave me the conduit to tell my own stories of home. Bourbon supplied me with a much-needed boost of pride and grounded me when I was away. It was the social lubricant that allowed me to connect.
During senior year, we were asked to find a problem in the world and solve it through design and development. The problem I chose was the oxycontin epidemic in Eastern Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. Through my research, I found that communities in the region with active tourism programs had far less dependence within their communities than those who were removed from access. My thesis focused on the further development of Eastern Kentucky Tourism through a program called the Moonshine Collective. That was my first start in understanding and valuing tourism as an access point and a means of inclusion. By the end of 2013, I started working with my mother back home, who at the time was running R&R Limousine, one of two companies providing tours in Louisville.
In 2013, all the notable bourbon brands were still functioning factories in the woods. None had any semblance of the formal programs we see today with visitor parking lots or selling alcohol on site. Guests would walk up to an employee on a factory line and request a tour, and it was expected to palm a few dollars for the effort at the end. By 2013, my mother knew that she wanted to expand the bourbon tour programs at R&R but was unsure of what steps to take. I began working with her in 2013 and the Kentucky Distillers Association in developing the more formal programs we see today. Over the past decade of work in the industry, I have seen inconceivable change throughout nearly every Kentucky community. I’ve seen communities like Bardstown grow into world-class leaders in development and tourism. I’ve witnessed tourism reshape nearly everything from physical infrastructure like road expansions to visitor parking lots, the sale of alcohol on property, and so many other massive transformations.
When I left Louisville in 2009, I left downtown empty of everything we have today. By 2013, downtown Louisville, along with Bardstown, Lexington, and Newport, were unrecognizable after a few short years of access, thanks to the investment tourism brought in. Friends from college now beg me to find bottles or hook them up with tours and experiences. Pride in our state and the reshaping of public perception are all thanks to the efforts of so many organizations and individuals over the past two decades. I genuinely believe that tourism can heal the world and lessen the divide in our country. Tourism allows everyday people a safe and controlled environment to receive recognition, access, a voice, and respect from the outside world. It puts blue-collar workers in the spotlight for work they’ve been doing for generations in many cases. Tourism values authenticity over clean, corporate narratives. It’s sustainable, reliable, understated, and fosters diversity, unlike any other industry. That philosophy carries into the Kentucky Hug. Our goal is to expedite the research phase so visitors can engage more with the authentic community rather than getting mired down in information. Tourism allows people from different backgrounds to engage in shared experiences. These experiences are invaluable in bringing people together and forming a more empathetic world. Not only does tourism allow people to better understand and value one another, but it also grows local economies in a way that nothing else can. It takes the best within an area and creates a pathway for stories to be told and locals to have control over their narratives.
What inspired you to co-found a company?
EF: I’ve always valued collaboration over individualism, especially when it comes to community infrastructure like the Kentucky Hug marketplace and booking system. Before finding my co-founder, I had already started work with Unbound, a creative development firm here in Louisville. We developed an internal ticket inventory management system for Pegasus, which was previously R&R Limousine. By 2019, I was having challenges hiring new employees at Pegasus due to the volume of tours we were executing weekly and the jockeying of ticket inventory. We needed an internal system to keep track of the tickets we had pre-purchased at the distilleries. Through our research phase, the team at Unbound pushed me to think bigger as everyone was having these problems across the industry. They assisted in getting me introduced to agencies that could build a public version of the system. I had a general understanding of the technical aspects of developing and building an application, but the scope of what I wanted to create was much bigger than I could do alone. I also wanted local community buy-in and an expert team to lead the development. I interviewed 17 developers in the region before choosing to work with Slingshot, along with David Galownia as my co-founder. Dan Murphy, the executive director for Slingshot Ventures, introduced me to David and the team at Slingshot. Everyone was incredibly engaged with the project’s concept and had a process for design and development that fit my values. They were data and interview-driven. Our design and development processes are community-oriented as well, with constant feedback from distilleries and consumers before designs are built. We’ve spent nearly two years developing the system we are rolling out in August. This partnership has not only been incredibly rewarding on a personal level, but it has also allowed each of us to focus on our strengths. I have focused on the distillery and consumer conversations while the rest of the team has been focused on the design and development. The Kentucky Bourbon Industry is incredibly political and heavily protected by the locals here. With my partners, I can focus on the nuances of onboarding distilleries.
I genuinely believe that tourism can heal the world and lessen the divide in our country. Tourism allows everyday people a safe and controlled environment to receive recognition, access, a voice, and respect from the outside world. It puts blue-collar workers in the spotlight for work they’ve been doing for generations in many cases. Tourism values authenticity over clean, corporate narratives. It’s sustainable, reliable, understated, and fosters diversity, unlike any other industry.
One thing no one tells you when you begin a startup is just how alone you can feel at times. Without my team at Slingshot, I would have been lost. I always thought the hard part of a startup was the business side, not the emotional one. Here in Louisville, I have virtually no access to guidance since nothing like this has been done here before. There are very few resources outside of a handful of monthly get-togethers to find community. I can’t call my mom or my friends when I need help deciding between B-shares or Convertible Notes, and attorneys are expensive friends. David, Dan, and Sarah have been my rock throughout this experience. I can’t imagine doing this without them. My partnership also brings with it a ton of other benefits that would be impossible to list in full. David and I are incredibly different, as is each member of our team—it’s what we value in one another. We all have different perspectives and vantage points, giving us rounded and thoughtful ideas. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found them, and I know that partners can be challenging, but I can’t say we’ve had a single real argument since the day we all met. The team is what makes this company viable. It’s not my idea or concept, but the work of every individual, including the team in Ukraine and every employee at Slingshot, that has brought this dream into reality. I am but a small piece of this tapestry, and with every new update and feature we add more to the team. I even find it difficult to use the “I” when writing because everything we have done has been a collaboration and group effort. No one operates alone, and if you can find a good partner when beginning a startup, it makes a world of difference and is invaluable in getting it off the ground.
Tell us about your team: Who’s on it, and how did you meet?
We asked the team directly:
Dan Murphy: “I got introduced to Eddie through a mutual contact. He was looking to build upon an idea he came up with while running Pegasus' bourbon travel arm, and it resonated with me. Three months before we met, I tried booking a bourbon tour for some friends and myself, and it was a nightmare of an experience. We are a part of this business because, from what we have learned, Eddie is the perfect person to run this company because he knows this industry, the industry needs a solution like what we are building because of its continued growth, and the timing is ideal.”
David Galownia: “I'm the CEO and owner of Slingshot, a successful tech company based out of Louisville and in business since 2005. Kentucky is my home state. I love bourbon, and I love building amazing software. The Hug combines all these things, and what we're building will largely serve as the front door to millions of visitors every year. Being a co-founder of The Kentucky Hug is a chance to elevate and modernize that experience for our visitors while also providing the community with better data and actionable insights.”
Sarah Bhatia: “I met Eddie when I joined the project in the summer of 2022. My background is in travel and hospitality product management, and I also spent a few years working in Bourbon advertising, so this project has felt like a dream fit for me to run. I lead a team of designers and developers from around the world, with the majority based in the Ukraine. It's been a gift to work on such a lighthearted, engaging project during a time when their daily life is filled with major stressors. I'm deeply proud of the product we've created and thrilled to see it come to life this year.”
Where do you see tourism and visitor experiences headed in the future?
EF: I’ve seen tons of trends come and go, from a focus on tastings, BBQ fanaticism, the Nashville Hot Chicken craze, an explosion of the craft cocktail scene, and so many others. Tourism in Kentucky is led by Bourbon, but cannot exist without other industries, whether we are looking at the production side or the branded experience. In general, most of the industry is reinvented every two years, with that turnaround time shrinking. Several outside factors are beginning to show their effects across tourism, specifically with the barrel shortages and bottlenecks in the supply chain. Many folks are currently debating how these factors will affect the consumer experience. Many see legacy brands absorbing craft distilleries due to supply chain pressures. However, some believe smaller brands will be more capable of adapting. These pressures inform the type of experience and products that can be offered, and it’s why you are starting to see bottle limits at distillery gift shops or long waits for barrel picks. Those sweeping changes are informed by a lack of resources on the production side due to the acquisition of craft distilleries by multi-national parent brands.
Tourism allows people from different backgrounds to engage in shared experiences. These experiences are invaluable in bringing people together and forming a more empathetic world. Not only does tourism allow people to better understand and value one another, but it also grows local economies in a way that nothing else can. It takes the best within an area and creates a pathway for stories to be told and locals to have control over their narratives.
Recent changes to Kentucky and Federal law have also opened the door to what will be a huge expansion of options available at distilleries in our state. In many ways, the brands are still playing catch up. Communities have also felt this pressure in the past few years. Locals are expected to have all the recommendations on what to do next. The average consumer wants to get involved in an authentic exchange and immersive experience faster and with less effort. Generation Z, along with younger Millennials, are much less interested in individual brand stories and more into the full context of authentic culture and history. Consumers post-pandemic across all generations have been demanding more variety outside of the typical turn-and-burn tour. The future I see has more barrel picks, more engagement, more community involvement, more integration with history and anthropology/archaeology, and the inclusion of music, food, and art. People don’t want to stand in line or buy a ticket—they want to feel a part of the community they’re visiting. The Kentucky Hug hopes to aid in all of these challenges. Through providing a base built on the distillery experience, we hope to elevate all aspects of hospitality, not just the ticketed items.
What does success look like to The KY Hug in the short term and long term?
EF: In the short term, the Kentucky Hug aims first to solve the challenges distilleries face. Secondly, we want to increase the number of travelers visiting Kentucky Distilleries by lowering the barrier to entry with research. We hope that by the end of 2023, we will have provided the industry with a robust, complete system that allows for more sustainable interactions between brand and consumer. We aim to reduce the number of phone calls, emails, and messages needed to do simple tasks such as rebook experiences, provide refunds, and plan trips. In addition, a huge part of the marketplace is aimed to be an easy answer for the front-line employee to give to a customer looking for where to go next a complete answer. Currently, there is no website or platform where a guest can explore other options in the area and have visibility into inventory. This currently puts tremendous pressure on our most important staff members to know all the answers. I chose to begin work on this project last year because I was tired of seeing my colleagues across the industry go home at the end of their workdays exhausted and drained. If we can help employees across the industry by reducing the pressures to be the end-all for all questions, I consider it a win.
Photo credit: Abdul Sharif Photography