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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.
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.
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.
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.
There are two standouts in Western Kentucky that have elevated the state’s craft distilling trend to a new level.
In the south central section of the state, there are two standout craft distillers:
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:
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