Kentucky Craft Distilling Comes Into Its Own

Written by Richard Thomas

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Even during bourbon’s nadir in the ’70s and ’80s, the Commonwealth of Kentucky remained one of the world’s most important whiskey regions, as it was the seat of so many of the world’s biggest distilleries. As whiskey rebounded and the craft distilling movement took America by storm, it was small whiskey-makers in states like Colorado, Texas and New York that got the bulk of the press. Perhaps because it was overshadowed by big names like Jim Beam, craft whiskey didn’t get as much play in Kentucky.

Yet Kentucky has had a foot in the craft distilling movement from its earliest days, and now enjoys an expansive, vibrant micro-distillery scene. Emerging from the shadows of the big boys and the mid-sized players (Michter’s, Town Branch, Willett) are a host of small distilleries making bourbon and moonshine.

The Bluegrass

  • The Barrel HouseOpened to little fanfare in 2008, Jeff Wiseman’s and Peter Wright’s side project was both Lexington’s first legal distillery since the 1950s and an early entrant into the craft distilling sector. They set up shop in the old barrel house of the ruins of the James E. Pepper Distillery, and in so doing managed another major feat, namely spearheading the urban renewal of Lexington’s Manchester Street.Equipped with a Portuguese-made Hoga still, The Barrel House has actually been making bourbon since their earliest days, but those first bourbon runs were socked away into standard barrels and are still maturing. For much of the intervening time, The Barrel House was making moonshine, rum and vodka. Their first bourbon release, a small barrel whiskey, came in 2015.
  • Bluegrass DistillersLexington’s third distillery (after The Barrel House and Town Branch) formally opened in October 2015, but started work on their whiskey back in 2012. The moved into an old bread factory on West Sixth Street, acquired (like Barrel House) some Portuguese-made copper, and got started with some help from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Engineering. They are now bottling an 86-proof small batch bourbon.
  • The Hillbilly Stills copper of Hartfield & Co.
    (Credit: Hartfield & Co.)

    Hartfield & Co.Billed as the first legal distillery in Bourbon County since 1919, this shop is operational and getting its feet wet with small, experimental runs of whiskey, released in limited batches. Spring 2016 saw the release of a French Oak- and European Oak-finished bourbon, for example. You can try these in the tasting room, and 375 ml bottles usually run about $30. They were originally known as The Gentleman Distillery, but ran into some undisclosed legal troubles regarding the name and became Hartfield thereafter.

  • Three Boys Farm Distillery: Formerly known as Whiskey Thief, this distillery is found in Frankfort, the state capitol. Their products are currently limited to a line of flavored whiskeys, but they are working on in-house bourbon and rye whiskeys.
  • Wildnerness Trail: This outfit opened in 2013, and at last reports had temporarily shut down operations and was in the midst of a move to a new location in Danville. Vendome was installing their new equipment during late April and early May. They presently only have vodka and rum in-house, but a bourbon, rye and wheat whiskey are all in the works.

 

Resting barrels at Louisville’s Peerless
(Credit: Peerless Distilling)

Louisville And Thereabouts

  • Boundary Oak Distillery: Under the stewardship of Brent Goodin, this distillery opened in Hardin County in 2013. Like many new micro-distilleries, their initial products have been legal moonshines, but they are at work on a small batch bourbon that should be available in the near future.
  • Kentucky Artisan DistilleryThis Crestwood, Kentucky outfit is perhaps known via indirect means, namely as the people who do the bottling for Jefferson’s Bourbon. However, they also make their own whiskey in the form of Whiskey Row Bourbon.
  • Limestone Branch Distillery:The Beam family is enmeshed in Kentucky bourbon, and Beam descendants have famously served as Master Distiller at both Jim Beam and Heaven Hill. Now the Beam clan is into micro-distilling, as brothers Steve and Paul Beam opened Limestone Branch in Lebanon, Kentucky. For the time being, Limestone’s only in-house spirit is its moonshine, with the revamped Yellowstone Bourbon a sourced product coming from Limestone’s partners at Luxco.
  • Peerless Distilling: Louisville’s Peerless Distilling is another family distilling revival, with Cory Taylor working hard to bring back the whiskey brand of his great grandfather, founder of the original Peerless. The distillery opened last year. Right now they have moonshine available, but anticipate a rye in 2017 and a bourbon in 2020.

Northern Kentucky

  • New Riff DistilleryNorthern Kentucky is closer to Cincinnati than Lexington or Louisville, places like Newport are still south of the Ohio River, and so is New Riff Distillery. They opened in 2014 and plan to release whiskeys, but as of yet their homegrown spirits are a pair of gins.
  • Old Pogue DistilleryLocated in Maysville, the name of this outfit is an old one in Kentucky whiskey, dating back to the late 19th Century. The original distillery closed in the 1940s, although the brand name survived as a sourced product for decades after. Members of the Pogue family opened the new distillery in 2012 in one of the state’s more celebrated whiskey family comebacks. They make bourbon, rye and white whiskey.
  • Second Sight SpiritsThis place is found in Ludlow, not far from the Covington/Cincinnati airport. This is Second Sight, and while it is unknown if they plan to delve into aged whiskeys, the distillery current has a trio of moonshines out.

 

At Corsair’s Bowling Green plant
(Credit: Christopher Kelley)

South-Central Kentucky

  • Corsair DistilleryOnce upon a time, this company was known as “Corsair Artisan Distillery” and were strictly a Bowling Green, Kentucky operation. Now their center of gravity is firmly anchored in Nashville, but the Bowling Green distillery is there. Corsair’s Derek Bell is now well-known in craft distilling circles for his wide-ranging and innovative approach to smoking grains and drawing on craft brewing lore in making his whiskey, and it all started in south-central Kentucky.
  • Wadelyn Ranch Distilling: Down in Central Kentucky, just north of Lake Cumberland, is Waynesboro and Wadelyn Ranch. This small outfit is making a product dubbed “Family Tradition Craft Distilled Whisky” and has a moonshine called Kentucky Lightning.

 

The wagon bed still at Casey Jones Distillery
(Credit: Joana Thomas)

Western Kentucky

  • Casey Jones DistilleryAmong those tapping into the moonshining history of Western Kentucky’s river country is Casey Jones Distillery, named for the (in)famous still-builder from those parts. Located in an absolutely lovely spot, nested in rolling, green country and alongside a tranquil pond, the distillery makes authentic moonshine using a wagon bed-style still. Unlike a lot of craft distilleries in the moonshine business, Casey Jones is the real deal: legal moonshine products are the only thing they do or want to do.
  • MB Roland Distillery
    This micro-distillery, situated on an old Amish dairy farm in Western Kentucky’s Christian County, has a busy roster of spirits and is very much looking for its niche. They have an expansive array of flavored moonshine and whiskeys made with smoked corn.

* Not listed here is Silver Trail Distillery, which was destroyed in an explosion last year. LBL Moonshine will continue to be produced at the nearby MB Roland, but plans to rebuild Silver Trail Distillery itself have been shelved. The associated moonshine museum, however, remains open.

This list overlooked Kentucky Mist and Boone County Distilling.

Andrew Buchanan