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    The beer was a pilsner called Pilsner. This was in Juan Merizalde’s home country of Ecuador, where the legal drinking age is 18. The point is, no bourbon. Which means he didn’t even understand what Brown-Forman was when he applied for an internship a decade ago while studying chemical engineering at U of L. Now, he manages the Old Forester distillery on Whiskey Row, which cost $45 million and opened in June. (Brown-Forman’s office and an Old Forester bottling line were located in the same building from 1882 to 1919.) “When I go home to Ecuador, everybody’s like, ‘What’s Brown-Forman?’” the 33-year-old says. “When I say the brands, they’re like, ‘Holy crap! You work for Jack?!’”

    Merizalde came to America as an exchange student in Denver, then started college on a scholarship at tiny Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky, before transferring to U of L. “I’d heard of Kentucky because of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but that’s as much as I knew,” he says. Merizalde now oversees the fully operational distillery for Old Forester (Brown-Forman’s original brand from 1870), complete with fermentation tanks, a 44-foot-tall gleaming copper column still, a cooperage with charring station and a warehouse with space for 900 aging barrels. (The bulk of Old Forester is made at the company’s distillery in Shively.) “Luckily for me, I have not had some of the tough stories that you see on the news about immigrants,” Merizalde says. “Our job, the people who have a little bit more exposure, is to reduce the level of ignorance that exists, to remind people that this country was built on immigrants.”

    Oh, and if you need even more proof that he’s a Louisvillian now: “I learned that when people ask you what school you went to, they mean high school,” he says.

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine as the Portrait. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

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