Kentucky Bourbon Makes a Comeback

Shrouded in the woods in an unincorporated town outside of Frankfort, Kentucky, a 19th-century distillery rumbles back to life. Abandoned in 1972, the workers walked out, leaving coffee mugs and office memos on their desks, not knowing when or if they might return. In the passing decades, the Old Taylor Distillery, with its “Sleeping Beauty” castle, was crumbling, cloaked in ivy, an unintended casualty of an unloved spirit.

Now the sprawling compound stands resurrected as Castle & Key, a massive and mercurial passion project of former Kentucky lawyer Will Arvin and hedge funder Wesley Murry. The reborn distillery began producing bourbon and gin in November under the energetic oversight of Marianne Barnes, the first female master distiller in bourbon country since Prohibition. “Since the first time I laid eyes on the historic site that would become Castle & Key, I knew that it was important,” she says. “It is a lost bourbon icon, built by a man who was not shy to say he made the best bourbon in the world.” But for all its history, Castle & Key isn’t just a relic of the past. It’s a vibrant glimpse at the future of bourbon—and bourbon country.

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Witnessing the brick buildings at Castle & Key, with their monumental scale and manicured gardens returning to the grandeur of their prime feels like the realization of an impossible dream. In truth, a project like Castle & Key, which aims to open to the public in July or August, could not have occurred even ten years ago. The increase in bourbon sales and prices over the last few years fuels this sort of optimism and opens the door to ambition. Bourbon sales hit 20 million cases in 2016 for the first time since 1985, with production near a 50-year peak. Kentucky now has 52 distilleries, compared to just 19 in 2009. This bourbon renaissance isn’t news to many of us, but the American whiskey boom is more than just a sales windfall. It’s a transformation of what bourbon can offer and a new vision for what makes bourbon unique. This is the beginning of a glorious new era for our American spirit.

Marianne Barnes, master distiller at Castle & Key.

On The Bourbon Trail

Visitors used to come to Kentucky for horses and Mint Juleps, preferably enjoyed together. Those who did drink bourbon gave little thought to how it was made. But now, with bourbon’s return to its proud place as America’s native spirit, ever more enthusiastic drinkers are venturing outside the racetrack and through the rolling blue-green hills of Kentucky, bourbon’s spiritual home. Distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail racked up a record million visits in 2016, up 300 percent in ten years.

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Southern hospitality demands that the distilleries accommodate these new guests, and that’s transforming the landscape in bourbon country. The older distilleries, for all their beauty, were mostly utilitarian endeavors. That has now changed, as distilleries like Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace have built gleaming new visitor centers or expanded existing ones, offering bourbon lovers curated and in-depth experiences, more frequent and intimate tours, and gift shop rarities.

The state of Kentucky—seeing which way the winds are blowing—has been happy to help. For years, distilleries could legally offer just two half-ounce samples of their product. Kentucky Senate Bill 11, passed in 2016, nearly doubles that limit while easing restrictions on distillery sales. It even provides for a license to run an on-site bar and sell drinks by the glass. Jim Beam has already opened a cocktail bar at the distillery, and several craft producers—including Angel’s Envy in Louisville and Jeptha Creed in Shelbyville—have followed suit. Soon enough, distilleries will be community meeting places, where locals and visitors convene over cocktails. Another expected legal change will allow Kentucky restaurants and retailers to buy and sell vintage spirits from private collectors.

Many of the next generation of distillers have built their enterprises from the ground up with the guest experience in mind. Bardstown Bourbon Co. is taking full advantage of the new hospitality opportunities. “We’re trying to create a Napa Valley experience on the Bourbon Trail,” says president and CEO David Mandell, who adds that the facility is the largest new distillery in Kentucky and, indeed, the whole country. Bardstown Bourbon Co., which aims to open later this year, is building what Mandell hopes will be the largest whiskey bar in Kentucky. A café, gift shop, wraparound patio, events space, and educational classrooms round out the experience. There are plans for a full restaurant and even a boutique hotel—which would be a welcome addition in still-sleepy Bardstown.

The Castle & Key facility includes a blooming garden, a restored gazebo, and a limestone spring capped by a Victorian rotunda. (Photo by Kristina Krug)

For a long time, distillery visits have been predictably similar: a tour followed by a tasting. New legislation, new investment, and new creativity are changing this, too. At Castle & Key, the guest experience will include cocktail classes, botanical and historical tours, live music, and—eventually—whiskey. Bardstown Bourbon Co., with its admittedly brief history, is putting the craft of bourbon making at the forefront. Backed by a veteran whiskey making team led by former Maker’s Mark master distiller Steve Nally, the company devotes around 85 percent of its production to distilling whiskeys for other companies through its Collaborative Distilling Program, not unlike MGP in Indiana.

New bourbon producers have confidence that—as long as you’re truthful—today’s savvy bourbon drinkers will judge a spirit on its merit more than its marketing. “We have built this modern distillery that has no hidden legends, no stories,” says Mandell. “It is just a transparent approach to making great whiskey.” Floor-to-ceiling glass windows line the Bardstown distillery, and guests can see the production still behind glass in the atrium. Even the grain silos are visible through windows from the catwalks on the tour. To get this close to the process in traditional industrial distilleries is almost impossible without safety vests and hardhats.

Is bourbon country becoming the next Napa Valley? The question is on many lips in Louisville and hopes are high, but in truth, Kentucky is emerging as something truly distinct from American wine country. After all, Napa is the land of $75 wine tastings, luxury hotels, and high-end auctions. American whiskey is more egalitarian. Many fantastic bottles of bourbon can still be had for under $30, and distillery tours are modestly priced or even free. The well-heeled can freely enjoy chasing pricey gift shop exclusives or downing elusive unicorn whiskey by the glass in Louisville, while everyday aficionados enthusiastically share great value finds while wearing T-shirts and hats promoting their favorite bourbons. Bourbon is the melting pot of spirits lovers.

What’s New Is Old Again

Bourbon producers new and old are rediscovering the past, returning to their roots, and making bourbon the way it used to be made. Making bourbon by hand using artisanal ingredients and less-efficient equipment is expensive, but the rising interest in American whiskey has resulted in a new cohort of drinkers happy to pay for quality. That’s now fueling initiatives that never would have been feasible before.

The restoration project at Castle & Key is emblematic of those changes. “The site had been abandoned basically since 1972. It looked almost Chernobyl-esque,” says Brett Connors, a consultant on the project. Such was the legacy of bourbon’s collapse in the late 20th century. The distillery complex spreads over 113 acres and includes roughly 20 structures in various states of disrepair and rehabilitation. The garden blooming among the ruins, the restored gazebo, the limestone spring capped by a Victorian rotunda, the castle itself: these are not the trappings of a site dedicated to maximally efficient industry, not now and not in the 19th century. Built for beauty and built to last, it’s fair to say they don’t make them like this anymore. Much of the distillery’s surviving equipment, like fermenters and grain scales, was still functional and has now come roaring back to life.

The Angel’s Envy Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.

Castle & Key plans to produce bourbon and rye that evokes what was made a century ago—and that’s not mere guesswork. “The inspiration behind the recipe was a bottle of 1917-distilled pre-Prohibition bourbon that was produced at Castle & Key by our original proprietor in its glory days,” Barnes says. “I nearly shed blood to open this antique metal screw cap, but what we found inside—a beautifully rich 16 year old bourbon that has sat in the warehousing on our property all throughout Prohibition—completely changed my mind about the quality and complexity of historically produced bourbon.” She ultimately plans to produce four bourbons using two different mashbills and two yeast strains, as well as a rye whiskey made with rare Kentucky-grown rye. Castle & Key is also working with a Kentucky farmer to grow heirloom white corn similar to what would have been used 100 years ago. Some of the botanicals for Castle & Key’s Kentucky gin, launching alongside the distillery’s grand opening this summer, are harvested from the distillery’s extensive gardens.

In a region of deep agrarian roots, bourbon’s return enables the preservation of a way of life. That’s how Jeptha Creed came into being. The distillery was founded in Shelbyville, Kentucky last year by Joyce Nethery, a chemical engineer, her husband Bruce Nethery, and their daughter Autumn. Bruce’s family has farmed in Shelby County for over 200 years. The craft distillery is a way to keep the family’s farm economically viable for the next generation. Just as 18th-century farmers distilled their grain because whiskey was less perishable and more portable than raw grain, farmers today can make whiskey to transform low-priced raw materials into high-value branded products. Few people wait in line overnight to hunt down rare ears of corn, but bourbon? That’s another matter.

Fittingly, Jeptha Creed operates as a true farm distillery. The family farm grows 100 percent of the distillery’s corn—an heirloom non-GMO variety called Bloody Butcher, with shiny kernels the deep red hue of new cordovan shoes. The company will release its bourbon around 2019, and until then is offering moonshines and vodkas, many infused with ingredients from the farm and used at the distillery’s cocktail bar. The small scale of the distillery even allows for more exotic experiments, like the distillation of pawpaws—an indigenous and highly perishable fruit available for just two weeks a year. Small distilleries like Jeptha Creed are fueled by tourism and on-site sales, at least until they can release fully aged whiskey, and that’s not a bad thing. The influx of visitors allows small companies to take chances on new styles, new ingredients, and new products—and that’s as American as it gets.

Family Ties

The long doldrums for bourbon sales took a toll on the industry, forcing many smaller distilleries out of business. Families who had been in the industry for generations suddenly found themselves on the outside. Now, decades later, they’re reviving their legacies.

The Willett family’s roots in bourbon date back to the mid-1800s, and the family opened its own distillery in Bardstown, a stone’s throw from Heaven Hill, in 1937. But the stills went silent in 1981. “The global demand just didn’t exist back then,” says master distiller Drew Kulsveen. Although the distillery shut down, the family never lost ownership of the site. Drew’s father, Even Kulsveen, a Willett family member by marriage, bought the company in 1984 and rechristened it Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), which made a name for itself sourcing and bottling whiskeys like Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and Johnny Drum.

Willett opened its new distillery in 2012 and matures whiskey in its historic warehouses.

After three decades of sourcing whiskey from others, KBD resumed distilling in 2012. Steeped in Willett history, the windy hillside distillery uses a column still from the 1930s, as well as Willett’s original doubler. The company’s eight warehouses and some of its recipes date back before the closure.

Willett (as the company is again called) is a few years ahead of the curve compared to most young distilleries in Kentucky. “We’re getting to the point where we’re starting to release some of our whiskeys,” Kulsveen says. The company has released 2 and 3 year old rye whiskeys under its flagship Willett Family Estate brand, a cult favorite. “For some of our brands that call for 4 to 5 year old bourbon, we’re starting to introduce our whiskey into those. It’ll be a number of years before the switch is 100 percent ours, but we’re working towards that,” Kulsveen says. He takes justifiable pride in last fall’s release of two Kentucky straight bourbons that were distilled entirely at Willett: Old Bardstown 90 proof ($20, available in 27 states) and Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond ($22, available only in Kentucky). The label has historic resonance for the company: Willett introduced Old Bardstown in the 1940s and produced it through the ’70s, when like so many other brands it fell by the wayside. The new whiskeys are some of the first fully mature releases from a new distillery born out of the bourbon boom.

Distilling the Future

The rediscovery of American whiskey isn’t just about looking back. Many distilleries, new and old, experiment extensively with ways to enhance production and make better, more interesting whiskey. Michter’s Distillery, under the oversight of president Joe Magliocco and master distiller Pamela Heilmann, uses heat-cycled warehouses to regulate maturation. The company also experiments with barrels made from staves that were air-dried for an unusually long 18 to 36 months and enters the barrel at an uncommonly low 103 proof, a costly move because it requires even more of their expensive barrels. Meanwhile, the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville is experimenting with locally sourced grain, solar power, and minimizing its environmental impact overall.

The sprawling Buffalo Trace Distillery is particularly well known for its scientific study of bourbon maturation. The experimental Warehouse X takes a controlled look at how factors like humidity, temperature, and natural light affect aging whiskey. The Single Oak Project, which concluded last year, examined flavor variations in bourbon matured in barrels made from single trees harvested from different areas of a forest. But the distillery has long been on the vanguard of smaller-scale whiz-bangery, occasionally released as the Experimental Collection. Early experiments in double barreling and wine-barrel finishes are now prolific across the industry, while releases like Buffalo Trace’s E. H. Taylor Four Grain Bourbon are more typical of small craft distillers. These experiments aren’t mere curios for collectors, but instead a way to advance quality and possibilities even within the narrow constructs of bourbon. “The experimental whiskies support our ‘embracing change’ mentality,” says master distiller Harlen Wheatley. “We truly believe the best bourbon has not [yet] been produced and we are on a mission to find it through purposeful and genuine research and development.”

Whiskey Row Reborn

The effects of the bourbon boom are most obvious in Louisville. It’s not quite Dawson City during the Gold Rush, but gentrification and the renewal of core urban areas have made Louisville a vibrant destination. Restaurants from acclaimed local and national chefs have coalesced into a sophisticated dining scene. A surge in hotel construction and the proliferation of top-notch bars like Proof on Main and The Silver Dollar are sure signs that whiskey is paving the way. Local publicans know their audience well: at high-end Louisville bars, rare library releases and hand-selected exclusive single barrels are common sights.

Inside the Angel’s Envy distillery.

With the transformation of Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row into a center of distillation, business travelers and casual visitors will no longer need to venture into the wilderness to see bourbon being made. The historic strip fell into disrepair in the 1970s. Beginning in the early 2000s, whiskey companies, which once had their offices on the strip, began coming back home to roost—and distill. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was the first to open, and Angel’s Envy and Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. are also up and running. Others, like Barrell Bourbon, a second Michter’s distillery, and Old Forester, are on their way.

The new distilleries, which vary widely in format, style, and experience, are a return to form for the historic neighborhood. The Old Forester Distillery, which is set to open in 2018, is located in the same building that housed Brown-Forman’s offices at the turn of the 20th century. “We’re pretty proud that we have this continuity and we want to uphold that,” says Campbell Brown, president of Old Forester and a fifth-generation member of its controlling family. “I’m looking back at our playbook from my grandfather and my great-grandfather and seeing if there are things we wanted to reintroduce that they were doing back in the ’40s and ’50s.” The new Whiskey Row is years away from selling fully mature bourbon, but the sudden wave of new distilleries, like fairy rings of mushrooms after a storm, presages what Louisville will become.

A Special Moment

There has never been a more exciting time to be a bourbon distiller or drinker. Today we have access to a truly outstanding variety of whiskeys, and all but the rarest, oldest, and most-acclaimed labels remain relatively affordable. Whiskeys made by luminaries like Jimmy Russell and Jim Rutledge are on the shelves of every spirits retailer in the country, and for a pretty enough penny the whiskeys of past distilling giants are still attainable. In this age of no age statement scotch and expensive 2 year old craft whiskey, ultra-aged bourbon—often sourced and blended by creative independent bottlers—remains surprisingly accessible. Eventually, this will end.

Soon enough, there will come a day when 4, 6, or 10 year old bourbon is widely available from distilleries just planting their roots today. The arrival of a new generation of master distillers happy to break old rules will transform bourbon’s landscape yet again. But by the time aged whiskeys from the new distilleries are widely available, most of the vestiges of the past will be consumed or hidden away in collections. The seeds of the future have been planted and are taking shape, but America’s bourbon legacy is still with us. Some may pine for a more affordable past, while others clamor for a bright future. But it’s far more satisfying to simply embrace this pivotal moment in American whiskey and savor it while we can.

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