By Rich Warren
At first glance, it looks like any other classroom — rows of students seated at tables listening to an instructor lecture up front. But the bottles of gin and other botanical spirits lined up within easy reach of the students are clues that this is a very different school indeed.
Welcome to Moonshine University, also known as the Distilled Spirits Epicenter. Students from all over the world come to the facility in Louisville, Kentucky, to learn every facet of the distilling industry, familiarizing themselves with what it takes to produce bourbon, rum, whiskey, tequila, brandy, and gin. Students range from casual enthusiasts to those already working in the industry to those interested in starting their own craft distillery.
Courses range from a single day to a six-day “Distiller Course,” or “Distilling 101,” as many students call it. The intensive course, taught by dozens of industry professionals, offers not only classroom instruction but also hands-on experience using the state-of-the-art stills on site. Every aspect of the industry is covered, from equipment purchase to getting the final product on retail shelves.
The more than two dozen other courses at Moonshine U. offer instruction in making individual types of spirits such as bourbon and gin, as well as fermentation, “nosing” for faults, and “Age-ucation,” focusing on the lengthy aging process for many spirits. Other courses delve into business plans and marketing. Most classes are challenging in their level of technical details.
“This is no walk through the tulips,” says Kristin Head, the center’s registrar. “It’s hard work.”
The popular Executive Bourbon Steward course is a certification program aimed at producing experts in the science of bourbon production, its history, and the differences among the many products on the market. Since Moonshine U. first started offering classes in 2013, nearly 1,000 students have demonstrated their comprehensive knowledge of “America’s Native Spirit” and achieved this certification. More casually, “My Craft Distillery Custom Barrel Program” allows students to create a spirit of their own choice, controlling every aspect of the process.
Since Louisville is situated in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon-producing region, Moonshine U. is able to secure some of the most highly skilled distillers in the country as instructors. The 88 faculty members are veritable walking encyclopedias of every component of the business, and they average 21 years of experience.
The students come from much farther afield — from 48 states and 34 countries, including Nigeria and Mozambique. Approximately 1,700 people have taken one or more of Moonshine U.’s courses, with more than 600 graduates of the “Distilling 101” course alone. Moonshine U.’s graduates have opened more than 130 new distilleries across the U.S. and beyond.
Many of the students have distinctive back stories. Adam Kennay is using his newfound skills to produce distilled spirits to supplement the income from his family farm in Illinois. Houston Farris, once a mixologist, is now head distiller at Yellow Rose Distilling in Houston, Texas. Jacklyn Evans uses the knowledge she gained in becoming a bourbon steward in her work as a brand ambassador at Maker’s Mark. And Alexandra Castle puts the courses she took at Moonshine U. to good use in her work as a head distiller at Old Dominick Distillery in Memphis, one of only two women in Tennessee in this role.
All are in agreement about the high value of the courses they took in Louisville and of the high level of support they’ve received after graduating.
“People tell me all the time they’d love to start a craft distillery,” says Ryan Thompson of 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit Company in Vail, Colorado. “I always tell them ‘Go for it!’”