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Interview: Danny Wimmer Presents CEO Danny Hayes

Louisville may not be the first city you think about for a vacation destination, but Danny Wimmers Presents is out to change that with three major festivals over three consecutive weekends in September.  This year marks the fifth year for Louder than Life (“The World’s Largest Rock ’N’ Roll Whiskey Festival” featuring hard rock performers), the return of Bourbon & Beyond (a mix of rock, folk, and Americana), and the premiere of Hometown Rising (focused on country music). It’s an ambitious, multi-year plan that continues to evolve.  Cincymusic chatted with Danny Hayes about the upcoming festivals and what it means to Louisville.  

When I told Danny that I’ve traveled the world but I’ve never been to Louisville (other than for a couple brief stops) he said that was one of the main points of the festivals – to bring in new visitors and show the world what Louisville has to offer.

The festivals involve arranging dozens of acts as well as multiple food and drink events and that takes a lot of planning.  Even as the finishing touches are being put on 2019, work on the 2020 festival has begun. When I remark on the incredible line up for the festivals (Foo Fighters, Robert Plant, ZZ Top, Guns N’ Roses, Joan Jett, Rob Zombie, The Flaming Lips, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Dwight Yoakam and many more), Danny remarks that bourbon and music are a natural fit and one of the things that they share is craftsmanship and dedication.

Danny Hayes: Robert Plant, Zach Brown, the Foo Fighters, John Fogerty – these are real musicians, these are real craftsmen who’ve really been around for a while that have tremendous respect not just from the public, but from the music community.

CincyMusic: Absolutely, and of course, bourbon and Kentucky’s heritage has really taken off in the last several years.  I saw that you are going to have a selection of distillers and a collaboration with Kroger on bourbon selection.  Can you talk a bit about what you’re doing special for bourbon as part of Bourbon & Beyond?

DH: First of all, we’re thrilled to have Kroger, they’re just an amazing partner that’s giving us this amazing retail footprint that is a first for us, something really exciting. What we’re doing is a lot of private barrel selections that will only be available at Kroger.  Danny Wimmer personally goes with Fred Minnick, who is our bourbon curator and the nation’s leading bourbon expert.  They taste a bunch of barrels and pick the one they like best and then that’s bottled and sold exclusively at Kroger. So that alone has been really fun and unique for some guys from L.A. to have all these barrel picks. And, then obviously the bourbon panels, the discussions… starting to see some collaborations. The bourbon industry is booming and we’re excited to be a part of it and to be highlighting all the great things that are going on in bourbon.

CM: I think we get spoiled in this part of the world. We’re not too far from Lexington or Louisville and we have this embarrassment of riches as far as bourbon goes, so it’s awesome to see it celebrated.  I wanted to ask about Hometown Rising (a country music festival that takes place the second weekend in September). Louder than Life and Bourbon & Beyond are carryovers from previous years, what inspired Hometown Rising and how are you integrating that with your other two more rock-focused efforts?

DH: The three festivals are part of a long-term plan that we had worked out with the mayor of Louisville as well as with the state of Kentucky.  The goal is that we’re going to create a SXSW model around these three festivals.  So, each festival is sort of the pillar and then we’ll start programming the weekdays with more and more things to do, giving people more and more reasons to stay in Louisville an extra day or two to take part in official events and activities and explore the city. So, the idea was to come up with three festivals that would appeal to three different audiences and really pull a broad section of music fans to a city that we really love.

CM: I would be happy to go to all three of these.  I’d love to spend the whole month in Louisville and just experience all of it. So, for the people for whom that’s not possible, people coming from out of town like I would be, what kind of guides do you have to help people navigate the events?  Do you have an app for the festivals?  It looks potentially daunting with so many events – music, culinary, bourbon – what do you have to help people get the most out of their limited time with so many things going on?

DH: We’ll post our favorite things to do in Louisville on our website, we’ll post a lot of information for consumers and partner with the visitor’s bureau who really does a great job in helping spread the word of things to do.  There’s a lot of ways for people to find out [what’s going on] outside the festival.  [Information for] inside the festival will be on our website and the festival app. We do some events ourselves.  We host some ticketed dinners; we’ll be hosting a lot more events in the years to come. We sponsor a charity bourbon auction at The Speed [Art] Museum.  We’ll start doing some other concerts as the years progress.  We do some bourbon tours with some of the distilleries.  We try to incorporate a lot of the city activities in the weekdays before and after.

CM: What do you anticipate the attendance will be for the three events?  You’ll be bringing a lot of new people to Louisville like myself that haven’t been there before, based on your past experience and how things are trending this year, what do you think?

DH: We’re on pace right now to do somewhere between 250,000 – 280,000 people over the three weekends.  

CM: Wow.  

DH: Yeah, it’s a lot of people and what’s really exciting is that 70% of them come from outside Kentucky. So, we’re really drawing in people like yourself who haven’t been and hopefully give them a reason to go and experience a really fun place and then realize there are reasons to come back here.  You are the target audience; you are literally the target audience! You’re right down the street and haven’t been!

CM: I agree, when I saw the lineup I was blown away.  I’m a big music fan, big bourbon fan, I like Kentucky quite a bit and love good food, that’s all in my wheelhouse.  I’m really hoping I can make this one.

DH: That’s one of the fun things about Louisville that people don’t realize, it’s really become a ‘foodie’ city.  There are a lot of really great, great restaurants there. Probably my favorite restaurant in the whole country is Anthony Lamas’ Seviche.  Every single time we’re in Louisville, we go there for dinner. We’re hosting a dinner there on Thursday night and we’ll probably host a private dinner there for VIPs on Wednesday night.  It’s just absolutely the greatest restaurant.  And of course, Ed Lee and his restaurants. There are so many great food places whether it’s barbeque or bourbon-inspired or high-end dining, it’s a great food city.

CM: And I think it’s one that’s not on a lot of people’s radar.You think Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., New York, obviously.  But a lot of people wouldn’t mention Louisville in that list, or Cincinnati for that matter.  But I think we hit well above our weight class for quality of food and chefs that we get here.  That’s really exciting to have not just a great day of music and good bourbon, but then be able to go out and have an amazing meal with local cuisine.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

DH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. 

CM: Any words of advice for first timers? If you could only have one bourbon or see one act, which would you pick?

DH: That’s too dangerous of a question (laughs)!

CM: I figured it was (laughs).

DH: You know, certainly if you are new in Louisville, Main Street has incredible distilleries.  There are distilleries that have spent 40, 50, 90 million dollars each developing their facilities.  They’re really remarkable and a really great place to learn about bourbon.  It was at the Evan Williams Experience that I became a bourbon drinker.  When I first went to Louisville about eight or nine years ago, I wasn’t really a bourbon drinker. I went and got the tour and went to the tasting room and sat and talked to the curator there and she had me try Evan Williams Black, which is just a very basic every day bourbon, and that opened up my palette and that became the first bourbon that I drank.  From there I found my way to a lot of other bourbons.  Sometimes that experience and just sitting and talking and understanding what you’re drinking and how to drink it can change you.  It did for me.

Between Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy and [Kentucky]Peerless…there are some really great distilleries and experiences.  And absolutely make it out to Bardstown, some of the older distilleries have been around forever.

CM: Best of luck with the festival.  Selfishly, I hope it’s around for a long time so we can come down and enjoy it. 

DH: [Laughing] I will now be using you as one of my examples of how these festivals bring people to cities who’ve never been before. You’re gonna be a great example!

CM: [Laughing] Great, and if you ever want to do it in Cincinnati, give me a call we’ll get it going. We would love it!

DH: We will for sure, enjoy the festival!