I pulled into the parking lot of Moonshine University just before 8:00 a.m. Once inside, I spotted both a full breakfast buffet and some of my classmates for the day. Most of them idly wandering around the classroom.
Whiskey Education from the Classroom to the Distillery
What really caught my eye were the four Glencairn Whisky Glasses filled with potent smelling clear liquor, four small samples of cereal grains and an Executive Bourbon Steward Workbook set up in my designated seat.
Moonshine University was already proving to be an institute of higher learning quite unlike any other.
The Most Unique University in Kentucky
Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city and home to four major colleges with a combined enrollment of over thirty thousand students. And while it may not be the biggest or most well-known, Moonshine University is certainly Derby City’s most delicious academic institution.
Okay, so it isn’t exactly a college. But Moonshine U. does offer one of the best certification programs for distilled spirits in the nation. Located on 8th Street just south of downtown near the old Union Station, the program is part of the larger Distilled Spirits Epicenter complex.
Opened in 2013, the business specializes in hosting hands-on workshops that cover all levels of distilling education. The curriculum ranges from a basic overview to intense multi-day courses. Some give students an opportunity to create their own distilled product from start to finish. In 2016, National Geographic placed Moonshine University at number 20 on a list of “100 Places That Will Change Your Life.” The faculty has even hosted “Bootleg” Bill Canny and Josh Owens from Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” to educate the pair on how to properly distill…well… moonshine.
Whiskey Education for Everyone
Moonshine University offers an all-inclusive list of courses designed to appeal to just about anyone with an interest in alcohol.
The course catalog features everything from Advanced Sensory Analysis to a Botanicals Workshop. Moonshine University is also home to The Stave and Thief Society – the industry’s first major bourbon certification program. The program can proudly boast being the only one recognized by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association as the “Official Bourbon Education Course.”
Since the program launched in 2014, Stave & Thief Certification pins have become ubiquitous on jackets and lapels on those working throughout the bourbon industry. The symbolic pins, two gold whiskey thieves crossed over a fleur-de-lis, are particularly easy to spot among the 24 Mint Julep Tours staff, drivers and guides who have passed their test to become Certified Bourbon Stewards.
The courses often deliver a better overall education on the process of making bourbon than you might get after slogging through 10 different distillery tours. In their classroom, the focus is on the distilling process. There is considerably less time spent on the larger-than-life stories that often highlight a brand’s history. And if, for some strange reason, whiskey isn’t what you prefer in your rocks glass, Moonshine University even offers a five day rum course that covers fermentation, finances, marketing, production, aging, and blending of rum.
For the novice Master Distiller looking to enter the business, there is a six-day distilling course. And for those who are dedicated Bourbon enthusiasts or lifelong learners simply eager to know more, there are day long courses like the one I was about to dive into: Stave & Thief Society’s Executive Bourbon Steward program.
Enrolling for a Day at Moonshine University
Back at Moonshine University, the itinerary included a little bit of everything. The bulk of the time would focus on several fascinating, interactive classroom sessions. Colin Blake, the Director of Spirits Education, hosted most of the lessons.
Colin’s knowledge seem to know no bounds and over the course of the day I would fill up an entire legal pad of notes on topics ranging from yeast strains to the code of federal regulations for labeling whiskey.
We’d also spend time covering advanced sensory training, hospitality, history, and more. Colin would even walk us through leading a whiskey tasting. And, of course, we’d sample our fair share of bourbon and whiskeys.
My fellow classmates came from all walks of life. I sat next to a textile artist who specialized in bourbon themed creations. One bar owner who doubled as a wine sommelier made the trek from Akron, Ohio for the class.
But the one thing on our schedule that got everyone most excited was the few hours of hands-on bourbon distilling we would spend in the “Grease Monkey Distillery.” Distilled Spirits Epicenter has a craft distillery used primarily for educational and demonstration purposes. After all, what better way to learn how to make bourbon than to walk through the process step-by-step?
The small automotive garage-turned-distillery houses a large cooker, three stainless steel fermenters, roller mill, and distillate tanks. But the most gorgeous gear was the 250 gallon capacity hybrid potstill and next to it a tall column still made by the legendary Vendome Brass & Copper Works company. A fully functional operation, the distillery has everything you need to create a batch of whiskey, vodka, gin and more.
Master Distiller for an Afternoon
Before long, the distillery’s operation manager, Tyler Gomez, assigned us all tasks that ranged from pouring in the grain to rigging hoses to move the mash from tank to tank.
As we gathered to taste the new make whiskey coming off the still, Tyler deftly explained the balance of removing some of the less desirable alcohol that makes up the infamous heads and tails in each batch.
“You wouldn’t eat an entire bowl of jalapenos”, Tyler pointed out. “But you might want a few in your plate of nachos.”
I quickly learned that distilling is a messy, hands on, labor intensive gig. A skill that seems to rely as much on science as trial and error. The Grease Monkey Distillery might be the only licensed distillery whose product you’ll likely never taste.
Since the distillery functions primarily as a place to teach and demonstrate, almost every drop is heartbreakingly destroyed. The distillery has the capacity to fill a handful of barrels a month, but nearly all of it gets dumped down the drain once they are done with the classes. It certainly puts a whole new spin on the category of hard-to-find bourbons.
Wiser in the Ways of Whiskey
By 6:30 p.m., we had reached the end of an exhausting but incredible day. We all completed the final task of the day, passing our written test, and were then given our commemorative pins and Stave & Thief challenge coin.
We also were issued our own Stave and Thief sensory kit to take home. A square box containing 36 vials that has scents commonly found in bourbon ranging from apple to butter to nut. All designed to help us create stronger sense memories on our time.
Walking out of Moonshine University, I had a little extra strut in my step. I was feeling proud to be part of this new kind of whiskey brotherhood. Sure, a day at Moonshine University may not hold the prestige of a four year bachelor’s degree, but this was certainly much more fun.
About the Author – Phil Kollin
Phil Kollin has been a Tour Guide & Host for Mint Julep Tours since 2015. He has hosted over 450 groups on bourbon adventures, horse tours and other custom experiences across the state. Phil is both a Louisville Certified Tourism Ambassador and a Certified Bourbon Steward through the Stave and Thief Society. Like Daniel Boone, Phil also believes that “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.” He can usually be found wandering around distilleries while wearing fun socks.”