I have a confession… I’m addicted to visiting distilleries.
I’ve been to almost fifty of them in Kentucky and Tennessee, and I plan to scratch several more off my list soon. As a Tour Leader for Mint Julep Experiences, I visit the large, world famous Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey distilleries such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s several times a week.
These distilling heavyweights offer great tours with knowledgeable tour guides, nicely appointed tasting rooms filled with quality spirits to sample, and well-stocked gift shops. But, there’s a soft spot in my heart for the little guy. That is why I especially enjoy visiting craft distilleries.
So What, Exactly, Is A Craft Distillery?
This question has been the topic of debate in the distilling world and among whiskey drinkers for several years, and there is no single industry-wide definition. Definitions of “craft distillery” vary.
The American Distilling Institute’s definition says “an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is PHYSICALLY distilled and bottled on-site.”
The definition from the American Craft Spirits Association states, “a distillery who values the importance of transparency in distilling, and remains forthcoming regarding their use of ingredients, their distilling location and process, bottling location and process, and aging process… that produces fewer than 750,000 gallons annually,… and is independently owned and operated, with more than a 75% equity stake in their company, or operational control.”
These are but two of the seemingly countless, and often contradictory, definitions. I’ll keep it simple in this post: when I refer to the term “craft distillery” I mean the smaller, and usually newer, distilleries.
According to industry sources, there are over 1,300 craft distilleries operating in the United States today, 80 to 90 of which have opened in Kentucky and Tennessee in the last six or seven years. Although the vast majority of Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries are in the business of producing whiskey, a few also produce other spirits such as vodka, gin, brandy, rum and even absinthe.
So Why, You May Ask, Do I Enjoy Visiting Craft Distilleries?
There are several reasons. Visitors to Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and the other large distilleries are often impressed by the sheer scale of their operations. Although these distilleries now have building upon building full of tanks, stills and other equipment, millions of barrels aging in warehouses, and billions of dollars in annual sales, it is easy to forget that every distillery, no matter its size, started off as a craft distillery.
With a little imagination, visiting a craft distillery is like traveling back in time to catch a glimpse of Jacob Boehm (who changed the spelling of his name to “Beam” after arriving in America) or Jack Daniel working their magic deep in the Kentucky and Tennessee hills.
I also appreciate the wide variety of approaches used by the craft distilleries to create their spirits. Many craft distilleries take experimentation to another level.
Jeptha Creed Distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky uses the sweeter red Bloody Butcher corn instead of the industry standard #2 corn in the mashbill for its experimental Bloody Butcher’s Creed Bourbon. This results in a mash that ranges in color from pink to mauve and, ultimately, in what it expects will be a sweeter than average bourbon.
H Clark Distillery in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee distills its popular Tennessee Black and Tan Whiskey from unbolted oats, malted barley and chocolate malt in order to create a whiskey similar to a stout style beer.
Copper & Kings
Copper & Kings in Louisville uses an approach it calls “sonic aging” to age its brandy and absinthe. Sonic aging is the process of booming loud, bass-heavy music through its aging barrels around the clock in order to produce vibrations that will increase the contact between the aging spirit and the barrel, thereby accelerating the aging process.
And no discussion of innovative American whiskey distillers would be complete without mentioning Corsair Distillery. Corsair, with two distilleries in Nashville and one in Bowling Green, Kentucky, has gained worldwide acclaim and earned numerous awards. Its ground-breaking whiskeys such as its Quinoa Whiskey (distilled from quinoa and malted barley), Ryemageddon (distilled from malted rye and chocolate rye), Grainiac (distilled from nine grains, including buckwheat, triticale and spelt), and Triple Smoke (a malt whiskey distilled from three fractions of malted barley, each smoked by a different fuel – cherry wood, beechwood and peat) are highly regarded.
The Best Thing About Craft Distilleries
But the thing I enjoy most about visiting our region’s craft distilleries is meeting the many interesting, knowledgeable and genuinely nice people involved in the industry, learning about the distilling business directly from the distillers, and being inspired by the passion they have for their craft.
People such as Lee Kennedy, the proprietor and distiller at Leiper’s Fork Distillery in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, who has been fascinated by distilling since his college days and is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. Bruce Boeko, a former DNA laboratory director and the president and distiller at Nashville Craft Distillery, enjoys explaining the science behind the craft to his guests. Stephen Fante, the lead tour guide at Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky, has a tour presentation rivals any one-man Broadway show for sheer entertainment value.
Craft distilleries come in many shapes and sizes from H. Clark Distillery, where Heath Clark and Travis Smith distill whiskey and gin in Thompson’s Station’s old town granary, to larger distilleries such as Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, the producer of such well-known bourbons as Willett Pot Still Reserve, Noah’s Mill and Rowan’s Creek, and Nelson’s Green Brier in Nashville, where brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson have resurrected their great-great-great grandfather’s distillery that was once the nation’s largest producer of Tennessee Whiskey.
Why Don’t All Craft Distilleries Have Whiskey?
No matter which craft distillery you visit, you can generally expect to take a short informal tour before sitting down to a tasting, which may be held in an impressive bar or tasting room, or on a table in a back room that doubles as the bottling line. Keep in mind that many craft distilleries elect not to release their first batch of whiskey until it has aged for several years.
So, since most craft distilleries are either brand new or recently opened, many of the products you sample may be either unaged spirits such as vodka, gin or moonshine (which may be unaged “white dog” whiskey with added flavoring), or whiskey that has been sourced from another producer (such as Nelson’s Green Brier’s outstanding line of Belle Meade Bourbons).
One notable exception is Kentucky Peerless, which opened its downtown Louisville distillery in 2015. It released its first batch of Peerless Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey in 2017, less than two years after opening. Peerless Rye was listed Number 15 on Whiskey Advocate magazine’s list of the top 20 whiskies in the world for 2017 and was the only product on the list from a craft distillery.
How Can You Visit Craft Distilleries?
If you’re interested in touring craft distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee, you may wish to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® Planner or the Tennessee Distillers Guild’s to help plan your craft distillery tour.
And, of course, the Experience Coordinators at Mint Julep Experiences can help you plan your own custom tour of Kentucky and Tennessee craft distilleries.
I am often asked which craft distillery is my favorite, which is like asking a parent of several children which child is their favorite. My answer, like the parents’, changes often and shall remain a secret!
About the Author – Charlie Robbins
Charlie Robbins joined Mint Julep Experiences as a Tour Leader in 2016 and has since hosted hundreds of groups on tours of distilleries, breweries, horse farms and many of Kentucky’s other unique attractions. After a 20-year career as a commercial real estate attorney, Charlie became a Certified International Tour Manager in 2010 and has hosted international and domestic tours for several tour operators, specializing in tours of Europe and Nashville. He is also a Stave and Thief Society Certified Bourbon Steward and may be found visiting craft distilleries throughout Kentucky and Tennessee in his free time.