Kentucky makes 95% of America’s bourbon, but that very fact makes the state an odd place to go in search of a craft distilling scene. While some Kentuckians are, ironically, teetotallers living in notoriously dry counties, many are whiskey fans of long standing. Yet these folks are already well-serviced by the big boys of the bourbon industry who call the state home. Kentucky is one of America’s two traditional whiskey states, the seat of names like Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Wild Turkey, and that is just to name a few. There are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky, and locals certainly have plenty of choices when it comes to whiskey.
Yet even in that crowded scene, more than a dozen micro-distilleries have sprouted up and are looking for their patch of Bluegrass in the sun. Many are following the time-tested route for a new craft distillery: making unaged spirits and bottling sourced whiskey while their in-house bourbon matures. However, there are a few small whiskey-makers in Kentucky that already have produced their own bourbon. Here are five you should check out.
Barrel House Distilling is appropriately named, located as it is in the old barrel house of the long defunct Pepper Distillery, in what is now being called Lexington’s “Distillery District.” Getting started in 2008 makes them one of the urban pioneers of redeveloping that area and one of the early entrants to craft distilling, not just in Kentucky but in the United States as a whole.
Barrel House has been making bourbon since their earliest days, and starting last year they began releasing batches of cask strength RockCastle Bourbon, based on a mix of stock aged in traditional 53-gallon barrels and smaller 25-gallon barrels.
Also in Lexington is Bluegrass Distillers, found around the corner from the West 6th Brewery if you are interested in combining your craft whiskey with some craft beer. These folks are making small batches of bourbon from a variety of mash bills (when I was there, they were proudly touting a blue corn bourbon), aged in 25-gallon barrels. They also have their clock quietly ticking away on the release of their first straight bourbon, due about 10 months from now.
Hartfield is in a county seat town outside Lexington, found at the end of a short, scenic drive from through thoroughbred horse country. Just this month they moved to bigger digs and opened an in-house bar.
Their bourbon relies on a quite different mash bill from most. Whereas most bourbon uses malted barley purely as a source of enzymes, to convert grain starches into sugar for fermentation, Hartfield & Co. is using a high malt mash bill where the malt is a major part of the flavor. Thus, instead of being wheated bourbon or spicy high rye bourbon, their stuff leans into American malt territory. They also distill it to a lower than usual proof, to retain more of the grain flavor. It is then aged in very small, 5.8-gallon, tight wood grain Minnesota oak barrels.
This distillery is found pretty far off the beaten bourbon track, down in Western Kentucky and much closer to Nashville than to Louisville or Lexington. They set up shop on what used to be an Amish dairy farm, and age their barrels in the old hay barn. The more distant location may pose a challenge to some, because their single barrel, cask strength bourbon is usually available only at the distillery, and often sells out within a day or two of its release.
Beyond these four, there are plenty of new entrants into the Kentucky craft whiskey scene that don’t have a bourbon to call their own yet, but have barrels resting in a warehouse and will be dumping and bottling the contents in just a year or two’s time. Keep an eye out for Limestone Branch, New Riff, Three Boys, Peerless Distilling and Wilderness Trail. In just a few years time, Kentucky will be awash with craft bourbon.