What You Need To Know About Kentucky Craft Distilling

24/09/2018 In Past Few Years, Craft Whiskey Distilling Has Seen Real Growth in Kentucky. This Movement is not as Obvious as it Appears.

Bluegrass Distillers

Given how important the state of Kentucky is to the whiskey world, it’s perhaps no surprise that craft whiskey distilling has emerged as a real growth industry within the state in just the past few years. Yet, Kentucky whiskey insiders will tell you that the meteoric rise of the state’s craft distillery movement is not as obvious as it might appear to outsiders.

For one, the presence of so many big names within the Kentucky whiskey scene - such as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams and Maker’s Mark - has made it difficult for small craft distillers to find new customers. But as mid-sized players such as Town Branch, Michter’s and Willett have grown in size, it has also opened the door for a very vibrant micro-distillery scene to emerge. In some cases, these new distillers are making bourbon and whiskey, and in others, they are simply making traditional Kentucky moonshine. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at some of the most important names within the Kentucky craft distilling scene, organized by region.

Bluegrass region

The Barrel House Whiskey

In the northern part of the state, you’ll find a majority of the state’s population, the state’s largest cities… and also the biggest-name craft distillers in the state.

  • The Barrel House - The Barrel House was established in 2008. This distillery’s primary claim to fame is that it was Lexington’s first legal distillery since the 1950’s. To reconnect with the historical past, the distillery was built on the site of the original James E. Pepper Distillery. In 2015, The Barrel House released its first bourbon, a small barrel whiskey.
  • Bluegrass Distillers - This craft bourbon distillery was the third-ever distillery in Lexington, after The Barrel House and Town Branch. Officially, it opened its doors in 2015, but initial work began on its bourbon production as early as 2012. Today, Bluegrass Distillers is best known for its 86-proof small batch bourbon.
  • Hartfield & Co. - Originally known as The Gentleman Distillery, Hartfield became the first legal distillery in Kentucky’s Bourbon County since 1919. In Spring 2016, Hartfield release its first small batch whiskies to great acclaim.
  • Three Boys Farm Distillery - Just like Hartfield, Three Boys Farm Distillery originally launched under a different name, Whiskey Thief. This craft distillery is based in the state’s capital city, Frankfort, and produces primarily flavored whiskeys.

Louisville region

Outside of the Bluegrass region in the northern part of the state, there is also a sizable concentration of small craft distillers in the Louisville region. The best known of these distillers include the following:

Of these, Kentucky Peerless Distilling is particularly noteworthy for being a family distilling revival. The company has built on the tradition and legacy of five generations of bourbon makers, and now specializes in “grain to bottle” production, all carried out in Louisville.

There is a broader lesson here from Kentucky Peerless Distilling: within the state of Kentucky, Prohibition resulted in the shutdown of many craft distilleries, including some that had been in families for generations. That led to the consolidation of the Kentucky whiskey industry into just a handful of big name players.  Now that the craft distilling movement has gained momentum across the nation, it has proved to be an auspicious time for these families to get back into the distilling game.

Northern Kentucky

While not as developed as the neighboring Bluegrass region, Northern Kentucky boasts a surprising number of up-and-coming craft distillers, including the following:

Of these, perhaps the most noteworthy is Old Pogue Distillery, which is also a whiskey family comeback, with historical roots extending all the way back to the late 19th century.

Western Kentucky

There are two standouts in Western Kentucky that have elevated the state’s craft distilling trend to a new level.

  • Casey Jones Distillery - Unlike other craft distillers in the state that focus on bourbon and whiskey, Casey Jones is an example of a crafty distiller that produces only moonshine. The name of the distillery is noteworthy - it happens to be the name of a famous still-builder in the state, connecting the modern craft distilling movement with the historical past.
  • MB Roland Distillery - If you’re looking for a picturesque craft distillery with plenty of historical charm, look no further than MB Roland Distillery, which was established on the site of an old Amish dairy farm.

South Central Kentucky

In the south central section of the state, there are two standout craft distillers:

  • Corsair Distillery - Based in Bowling Green, Corsair Distillery has a complex history that involves neighboring Tennessee. Whiskey production has been largely moved to Nashville, leaving spirits production to remain in Kentucky. Thus, for some whiskey lovers, Corsair is a distinctly Kentucky brand, while for others, it is a Tennessee brand.
  • Wadelyn Ranch Distilling - This craft distillery is best known for its production of “Kentucky Lightning” moonshine.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, known for highlighting the biggest distillers in the state, now has an offshoot called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, focusing on 14 standout craft distillers, including many of the distillers listed above. Here’s a full list of the 14 craft distillers that locals and tourists alike can visit:

  • Jeptha Creed
  • Willett Distillery
  • New Riff Distillery
  • MB Roland Distillery
  • Limestone Branch Distillery
  • Kentucky Peerless Distilling
  • Hartfield & Co.
  • Corsair Distillery
  • The Barrel House
  • Kentucky Artisan Distillery
  • Wilderness Trail Distillery
  • Boone County Distilling Company
  • Old Pogue Distillery
  • Bluegrass Distillers

As can be seen, craft distilling has once become a statewide phenomenon within Kentucky. At one time, there were hundreds of small, independent distillers. We could be seeing a return to this historical legacy, with many of the craft distilleries building on the proud legacy of the past. In some cases, they are family revivals. In others, they are named for important historical figures or events in the past. And in yet others - as in the case of The Barrel House - they are actually established on the site of former distilleries. That might be a good reason why whiskey lovers now realize that great Kentucky whiskey is about more than just the big names like Jim Beam - it’s also about the small, craft distillers bringing innovation and creativity to the game.

Image credit: Bluegrass Distillers on Instagram -- @BluegrassDistillers