Bourbon's Pioneers You Need To Know About Now
Meet the next generation of distillers who are writing another chapter in the history of Kentucky's native spirit.
It wasn't long ago that bourbon, the house drink of the South, was considered bottom shelf. After Prohibition, once-prosperous distilleries were left to crumble into Kentucky's rolling, horse-dotted hillsides, while the few that remained concentrated their efforts on small-batch bottles for niche customers.
These days, the state's master distillers walk into high-profile parties, not just barrel-lined rickhouses, while both American and international visitors drive to rural hollers and walk through downtown Louisville to see where bourbon is made.
While bourbon's big names have been rediscovered, new distilleries and experiments at older ones have fermented. Whiskey-making in Kentucky has always been a family affair, but what has been a lineage of deep-seated distilling dynasties now has fresh faces, including teams of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, siblings, longtime friends, and—more recently—mothers and daughters. As they're all creating their own legacies, established Kentucky institutions like Buffalo Trace Distillery and Stitzel-Weller Distillery are continuing theirs by adding modern touches to a time-honored craft.
Founded in 2014
When Autumn Nethery's parents first brought up the idea of starting a family distillery, there was just one problem. "They approached me about it when I was still underage," Autumn says with a laugh. But becoming a distiller didn't strike her as an outlandish concept; her mother, Joyce Nethery, was already an accomplished chemical engineer with 15 years of experience in industrial distilling. Her father, Bruce Nethery, is a farmer who grows heirloom corn, the kind she and her mother decided they would use to make their own bourbon.
To develop her palate, Autumn studied spirit-making at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. "From when I first started drinking, I was already thinking that I wanted to study these flavors and what grains throw these different tastes," she says. After her return, she and Joyce built their distillery on the farm their family has owned for over 250 years. It's set near the Jeptha Knob, a cluster of handsome rolling hills that helped inspire the distillery's name. In the neighboring fields, Bruce farms the labor-intensive selection of corn they use; it's called Bloody Butcher. "The name comes from how the kernels look like blood splattered on a white butcher apron," says Autumn. "We may not get as high a yield with it, but for us, the flavor is worth all the extra stress." She points out that Bloody Butcher creates a pink mash before it's distilled.
Jeptha Creed has released a two-year-old bourbon and plans to have its four-year-aged bourbon available in another year, but visitors will find they've already distilled their family's ethos into the property. "We really want people to feel at home here—not like they're in a factory," says Autumn.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Founded in 1792
On the forested bluffs outside Frankfort, barrels are still rolled by hand from warehouses down oxidized copper tracks to narrow, low-ceilinged rickhouses where they are left to age. But there's one small, gated building at Buffalo Trace where this antique technique meets modern technology. It's called Warehouse X. Although it might sound like a locale from a superhero movie, it's where the state's oldest continuously operating distillery is using computer-powered monitoring systems to try to re-create something that happened by accident.
After a tornado tore through the distillery's Warehouse C, its roof and walls were ripped apart, but shockingly, the barrels stayed intact. The resulting bourbon developed an unusual flavor after it was exposed to a buffet of harsh elements, from pressure to cold air and sunlight. Named the E.H. Taylor, Jr., Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon, it became a collector's item.
Now, Buffalo Trace's Warehouse X employs four independent chambers to control the different elements that the barrels of bourbon are exposed to with the goal of discovering the secret formula the tornado distilled.
Hartfield & Co.
Founded in 2013
While he was waiting for an oil change, with his kids in the back seat, Andrew Buchanan checked his e-mail and found a cease and desist order. The distillery he and his wife had started, the only one in Bourbon County since Prohibition, shared a name considered too similar to another brand; it didn't take him long to find a new one. Weeks before, his aunt had dug up information on ancestors with the surname Hartfield, who had also built a distillery after they emigrated from Germany to Kentucky.
Buchanan created Hartfield & Co. with hopes of passing it down to his three sons. His 5-year-old has supplied drawings of bourbon bottles and horses that hang in the tasting room, and his middle son is quick to say he wants to be a distiller when he grows up. On a busy night at Hartfield & Co., you might find Buchanan's wife, Larissa, with their 1-year-old strapped to her back, working the bar, shaking cocktails and chatting with customers in the mobile lounge, fashioned from a horse trailer. "I wanted to build something our sons might take over if they want to," says Buchanan. "Mostly, I wanted to show them they can go heart and soul into an idea, and they can build something too."
Kentucky Peerless Distilling
Founded in 1881; reopened in 2015
Father-and-son founders Corky and Carson Taylor of Kentucky Peerless Distilling have a lucky number: 50. It refers to the state-assigned DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) number of the distillery that the Taylors' ancestors bought in 1889—the 50th distillery in Kentucky. "Most distilleries today are up past 20,000," says Carson. "We were one of the first families to get our number back."
Inside Kentucky Peerless' nearly 125-year-old downtown warehouse are the Vendome copper stills, crafted just 15 blocks down the street, used to make their rye whiskey and bourbon. The stills represent another full-circle moment for the distillery. Rob Sherman, a vice-president of Vendome Copper & Brass Works Incorporated, discovered archival documents that detailed how Corky's great-grandfather Henry Kraver had assisted Elmore Sherman when he started the still company after Prohibition. "We helped them get into business many years ago, and in return, they helped us get in business today," Carson says.
Founded in 1812
Elizabeth McCall – one of the youngest, female distillers in the country – attributes the complexity of Woodford Reserve bourbon to time and patience. Each batch is made with a meticulous balance of corn, rye, and malted barley all sourced from the state of Kentucky.
Originally established in 1812 by the Pepper family, Woodford Reserve distillery is situated near Glenn's Greek where fresh spring water has continually served as the foundation of the distilling process for over 200 years. Take a trip to the fermentation floor and you'll notice cypress wood fermenters that seem to be disproportionately smaller than average. These tiny tubs aesthetically match the beautiful, historic distillery and allow for precise flavor control.
When the bourbon barrels are filled and ready to age, they are hand-rolled down a vintage track in a process affectionately nicknamed the "Woodford wobble". Every bit of the rich color of the beloved spirit comes from the barrel, which produces over 200 flavor notes like peach, apple, and citrus with every sip.
Castle & Key
Founded in 2014
Start with the Roman bathhouse-style structure sheltering a spring water well shaped like a keyhole. Then move on to the Windsor Castle-inspired buildings and the tailored, formal gardens designed by Jon Carloftis. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, Castle & Key was a forgotten shell of itself, collapsing and covered in overgrowth.
Two previous owners attempted to resurrect the Old Taylor Distillery after it came close to being stripped of its heart-pine floors and limestone blocks. Then Will Arvin and Wes Murry took over. Four years later, the property looks more like the one Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr., imagined—not just a distillery but a showplace of Kentucky hospitality where he once entertained guests in his signature white suit.
What the good colonel might not have imagined was that this distillery would be run by the state's first female master distiller, Marianne Barnes, and a woman-dominated team. "Restoring the place has been a labor of love for all of us—just getting a feeling for what it was and what it will be," Barnes says.
Although Castle & Key's bourbon won't be available until 2019, in the meantime, visitors can sample a line of gins produced with botanicals from the estate's gardens.
1. Set up base in Louisville, home to a new urban distillery scene and some of the state's best hotels, like the 21C Museum Hotel and The Seelbach Hilton (which helped inspire The Great Gatsby).
2. Don't set out to see five or more distilleries in a day. Focus only on two or three so you can take the scenic route through horse country.
3. Not all whiskey can legally be called bourbon, which must be made with at least 51% corn, rye, malted rye, malted barley, or wheat; aged in a new oak barrel; and produced in the United States.