How Dry I Am
Having grown up in rural Kentucky, I would love to spin some yarn about my grandpappy smoking a corncob pipe while teaching to make liquor on his homemade still set up down by the spring. Actually, no I wouldn't. I don't even say "grandpappy." And while he did have a farm and a spring trickling out of a cave back in the woods, the closest he got to being a moonshiner was planting corn. He was a Chivas man, after all, and he'd have been goddamned if he was going to drink some cheap backwoods swill. He was more than happy to make the hour-long drive across the county line to pick himself up something actually worth drinking. And you had to cross the county line -- because Oldham County, my county, was dry.
In the 1870s, Oldham was home to a number of distilleries. Ample farmland, abundant limestone springs, and the Ohio River made Oldham County excellent distilling country. Near the town where I grew up were at least five distilleries: Benjamin Callahan, Leslie C. Ford & Co., Shirley & Chambers, and the James Wilhite Distillery, all in Buckner Station; and the Joseph Smithers Distillery in LaGrange. By the 1890s, most of them were gone. Towns scattered across the county started voting themselves dry long before Prohibition. By the time the Volstead Act came to pass, distilling in Oldham County was all but dead already. After Prohibition, no one saw much reason to change things. Like many other counties in Kentucky (including, ironically, Bourbon County), Oldham elected to stay dry even after Repeal.
And yet that dry county has produced two master distillers -- Brown-Forman's Lincoln Henderson, who in his spare time helped launch Woodford Reserve and consulted for Japan's Suntory (coincidentally, his daughter was my babysitter when I was little), and most recently, Marianne Barnes, late of Brown-Forman and now in charge of things at the revived Old Taylor distillery outside of Frankfort. Lincoln's son, Wes, founded the sourced whiskey company Angel's Envy. And now, distilling has returned to the county in the form of Kentucky Artisan Distillery and Jefferson's Bourbon. You can't sell spirits; but you can distill them, it turns out. That's what led Pewee Valley resident Steve Thompson, a former president of Brown-Forman, to a former ice cream factory outside of Crestwood, where he and partners Chris Miller and Michael Loring opened Kentucky Artisan Distillery (KAD).
Their goal was a little different than other distilleries. KAD distills spirits -- but not for themselves. They're a contract distiller, using their equipment (most of it purchased secondhand from Brown-Forman) to distill for others. After just a few years in business, producing primarily for small niche labels like Big Ass Bourbon, KAD attracted its biggest client to date: Castle Brand's Jefferson's Bourbon, which as of summer 2015 officially calls KAD home, setting up a visitor's center and contracting with them to start distilling and aging whiskey that will become Jefferson's. They're also distilling Kindred Distilled Spirits (Highspire Rye Whiskey) and Buzzard Brands (Whiskey Row Bourbon, Steve’s own brand). All of their corn and rye is locally sourced, much of it from nearby Waldeck Farm. They're currently looking for a local barley source as well. Despite all this, most locals don't even realize KAD is there.
"Most residents have no idea there is a distillery in Oldham County," says Liz Ratliff, who's currently in charge of the Jefferson's visitors' center at KAD. "The majority of people that stop in, who are local, always tell me ‘I had no idea this existed, how long have you been here?’ It blows their mind when I tell them it has been here for almost 3 years."
The county's connection with Brown-Forman continues with Marianne Barnes, an Oldham County native who went to the University of Louisville for chemical engineering and eventually found herself at Brown Forman and then, most recently the master distiller at the revived Old Taylor. Like me, she never sat on a moonshiner's knee and listened to tales of him running his Pontiac down Highway 42 to deliver homemade booze to thirsty Louisville speakeasies. You know, since there were no speakeasies, and Louisville bars could just order booze normally. Marianne didn't think much about the bourbon industry until she was in college.
"It was my dad that suggested I go to school for chemical engineering, and then it was my mom who encouraged me to pursue Brown-Forman as they are very well known in Kentucky," says Barnes. "As I learned more and more about it in engineering school at SPEED (U of L's engineering school) in Louisville, and then had the opportunity to get my hand dirty in real distilleries, I fell in love."
After she started at Brown-Forman full-time in 2012, Barnes studied tequila making and spent some serious time in the yeast lab. "I had many opportunities to spend time in Mexico when I worked for B-F learning the nuances of tequila production. It is a fascinating industry, but there are so many traditional techniques that have been passed down since what seems like the beginning of time, and it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for digging in and understanding the origins of it. All the old records are kept on paper, and if the next generation doesn't care enough to pull them out and learn about it, all those years of experimentation are likely to turn to dust."
She adds, "I think the most complicated aspect of my career so far in distilling has been truly understanding the ingredients and their impact, particularly that of yeast. Understanding just exactly how they work, the conditions they like to make the best quality product and then also understanding how yeasts are used in other spirits, such as tequila is a challenge, but I really enjoy it."
Barnes thinks that a background in chemical engineering makes for a solid foundation on which to build a career as a distiller -- an opinion that seems pretty accurate when you realize than many of the most respected master distillers in the world have chemistry backgrounds. But Barnes also acknowledges that proficiency in chemistry -- and a good understanding of microbiology doesn't hurt -- only gets you so far once it's your job to make whiskey. "The one thing that school does not prepare you for is the art of it, the flavor development side. I can get a very efficient, high yielding process and still have it taste like the bottom of a leather shoe. It takes training, on the job, learning from other, smarter, older distillers to understand the importance of the ingredients and learning the artistry it takes to create a beautiful end product."
Making the move from master taster at Brown-Forman to master distiller at Old Taylor was a big move. Old Taylor isn't just a job one slides into after the previous distiller retires. There is no distillery, no previous master distiller. Well, not unless you go back a long way. Old Taylor, founded by Col. E.H. Taylor Jr. in 1887, produced its last drop of whiskey in 1972. The warehouses were in use until the 1990s, but for the most part, it was abandoned and allowed to lapse into ruin. When Peristyle, LLC acquired the old facility, they turned to Marianne Barnes to resurrect the whiskey.
"The feeling is almost indescribable," says Barnes. "I really feel like we are doing something larger than ourselves, restoring a lost part of bourbon history that was integral to the way the industry is now."
Back in Oldham County, KAD is ramping up production in order to handle the demand that will be placed upon it by Jefferson's Bourbon, a wildly popular sourced bourbon that has been without a proper home. Kentucky Artisan Distillery currently consists of three cookers, four fermenters, and four stills ranging from 1125 to 125 gallons. They're also building a new rickhouse. Ratliff explains that the relationship between KAD and Jefferson's grew after KAD started doing some blending, aging, and bottling for Jeffersons. Deciding to settle in at KAD gives Jeffersons a home and a distillery (while Jefferson's remains sourced from elsewhere for the time being, KAD has started distilling whiskey earmarked specifically for Jefferson's). Visiting KAD now gets you a look at the whole process of making bourbon. "Every step along the process in our distillery is a hands-on approach," says Ratliff. "No computer design, etc. Our master distiller is back there rolling barrels with the other distillery workers."
But one of the things people like to do when they visit a bourbon maker's visitors' center? Drink the bourbon. And you can't do that in Oldham County. At least not right now. In 2005, the county agreed to allow certain restaurants to serve beer and wine under strict conditions. This year, the county is voting on whether to go wet. If that happens, KAD is preparing for a tasting room as well as another production facility and another warehouse. And who knows what could happen with distilling at large in Oldham County? Could the industry return to my old home?
You can never tell with these things. Old habits die hard, and Oldham County has effectively been dry since the 1890s. Although, of course, that's never stopped people from enjoying good bourbon. Or from making it.