By Fred Minnick
It’s known for the likes of Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey, but the Kentucky bourbon industry is more than just the mega-distilleries. There’s a strong crop of smaller producers, each turning out less than 100,000 gallons a year.
“The craft distillery industry in Kentucky is very important to us,” Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear says. “Most of our big distillers are located between Louisville and Lexington – the central part of the state – but these craft distillers are able to be out in Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky and Southern Kentucky. And that only creates more tourism in those places where people [also can] spend their money.”
Here’s a look at some of the newer, smaller Kentucky distilleries.
New Riff Distillery – Newport
If any distillery has the capability to move beyond the craft-distilling label it’s the New Riff Distillery. Just minutes from Cincinnati, New Riff boasts a 60-foot-tall column still surrounded by glass windows, so onlookers can gawk at its shimmering copper beauty.
Owner Ken Lewis convinced the local zoning commission to allow him to bust down a levy to build his distillery, replacing the Ohio River flood protection measure with a much-better floodwall.
“I want to see the return on investment 10 years from now for this distillery,” Lewis says. “Everyone who’s a business-oriented person thinks I’m pretty nuts, including my own bank and their board of directors. Just trying to get a loan for this building alone – they were hesitant to make the loan because no one thought there was any sense to what I was doing…On the other hand, anything in life that’s really exciting and wonderful and serendipitous has to be a little on the crazy side.”
The Gentleman Distillery – Paris
When Andrew Buchanan set out to create the first legal distillery in Bourbon County since Prohibition, the young businessman had an obvious name in mind – Bourbon County Distillery. His intentions leaked out into the small town of Paris, Kentucky, and somebody state-registered the name “Bourbon County Distillery” within two days after Buchanan met with the commission. “This guy registers the name and we go round and round with how to fix this,” Buchanan says. “My wife was on the phone with him and said, ‘Why don’t you just be a gentleman and step aside?’ We had [already] picked up all the domain names and social media accounts.”
Instead of negotiating a fee to purchase the name, Buchanan called it The Gentleman Distillery after his wife’s phone appeal. Since fall 2014, The Gentleman Distillery has been making rum and whiskey using blue plastic barrels as fermenters and two 26-gallon stills. Despite its small size, the distillery has already received several buyout offers – and why not? Nobody else can claim they’re the first distillery in Bourbon County in nearly 100 years. Not even the guy who owns Bourbon County Distillery.
Wilderness Trail Distillery – Danville
Wilderness Trail is staffed with longtime fermentation consultants and yeast purveyors: founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist also owned Ferm Solutions Inc., a company with more than 200 yeast isolates and consultants who have provided scientific expertise to just about every distillery in Kentucky.
But fermentation expertise doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t face hiccups in their first year of operation. Producing quality bourbon takes time, and time is money. “Ninety-five percent of what we make is bourbon,” says distiller Jerod Smith. “We try to do things in a traditional way, so we do everything in full-size barrels and don’t try to get a bourbon out in nine months or a year. It’s a four- to five-year investment.”
Old Taylor Distillery – Millville
Once among the most beautiful distilleries ever built, the Old Taylor Distillery in recent years lay in ruins, abandoned and littered with trash, busted barrels and crumbling buildings. The iconic castle on the site was stained with rust and soot, a depressing site for bourbon lovers. Then, a knight in distillery armor came to the rescue and in May 2014 the newly formed company “Peristyle” announced its $6.2-million plan to restore the 83-acre complex with its stone bridges, gardens and a new visitor center.
The company is refurbishing it now and has hired Kentucky’s first woman master distiller – Marianne Barnes, the former master taster for Brown-Forman.
MB Roland Distillery – Pembroke
MB Roland looks, feels and even smells like an old-school farm-distillery. Cut into the picturesque green landscape of Western Kentucky, the distillery acquired a former Amish farm to build a dream – but it needed work. “The Amish are supposed to be known for their incredible craftsmanship, but that wasn’t my experience. I don’t think we found a single straight board in any of the buildings,” says Paul Tomaszewski, co-owner with his wife Merry Beth Roland, for whom the distillery is named.
Tomaszewski and crew installed electricity, replaced the dirt floors with concrete, stabilized old buildings and opened in 2009, becoming Christian County’s first distillery since Prohibition. They produce bourbon and fruit-infused whiskeys, as well as a fun smoked whiskey. Inspired by nearby tobacco dark-fired barns, MB Roland uses the traditional smoking process called “dark firing” with tobacco leaves on its own white corn. For their Kentucky Black Patch Whiskey, dark-fired corn makes up one-third of the mash. “This process is so unique because the smoked corn is not bought,” Merry Beth says. “We’re doing it ourselves.”