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The Bluegrass Spirit | Listen

By: Emily Havener

Three Kentucky distilleries are shaping the future of bourbon

Founders of Fresh Bourbon pose with their product.
Image courtesy of Tia Edwards

Even though I was born in a coastal state and will never move away from the salt air, Kentucky has long been one of my favorite places. My grandmother grew up in the Frankfort/Lexington area, and we visited her family there when I was young. I undoubtedly inherited her love of horses, and I still think little is more beautiful than the rolling hills of grass punctuated by miles of white-rail fences—and the horses behind them.

I discovered my appreciation for Kentucky’s other famous homegrown commodity a bit later in life, but I always missed in bourbon what I loved about wine and other spirits more prevalent in cocktails—its versatility and ability to pair with food. That changed on a recent visit to the Bluegrass State when I discovered many distilleries’ efforts to change the narrative around the whole bourbon experience—from safety and responsibility to appeal among women and people of color to a focus on cocktails and food pairings.

One quick note—you may be able to get an Uber to a distillery, but getting one for your return is harder. So that you can fully enjoy the generous tasting experiences on offer, be sure to engage a tour group to provide transportation. Among many options, Mint Julep Tours, Kentucky Bourbon Boys, and On Tap Tours come highly recommended by locals, and all will let you design a custom tour.

Lexington: Fresh Bourbon

First things first: The Manchester in Lexington (see page TK) should be your home base for bourbon in the Bluegrass Region. This stunning hotel is within easy access of Lexington’s Distillery District, a walkable area with two distilleries plus restaurants, bars, and shopping. But above all, you should make the short trip to the Fresh Bourbon tasting room on Main Street, tucked into the shopping center across from Carson’s Food & Drink (where the sweet and spicy ribs and rosé linguini are not to be missed). Fresh Bourbon owners and husband-and-wife team Sean and Tia Edwards are recognized by the state of Kentucky as the first African Americans to make Kentucky bourbon since the era of slavery.

The Manchester hotel is located near many distilleries
Image courtesy of Matt Kisiday

The Edwardses founded this craft label and designed the experience around it to be both elevated and accessible. They especially wanted women, who are less often the target audience for bourbon, to feel comfortable and welcome. As a result, their tasting room contains many
elements similar to Napa-style wine tastings.

When I visited, Tobie Brown was behind the gorgeous marbled bar top lit by Swarovski crystal chandeliers. In front of me was a snifter of Fresh bourbon. Brown introduced me to the unique qualities of Fresh—it’s a mash bill with a lower volume of corn that includes 20 percent honey malt, which enhances the flavor, and it’s also the only bourbon currently to come out of Bourbon County. Turn the glass at a 45-degree angle, and the heavier and lighter scents separate and pair perfectly with the snacks on the board.

“The warm sensation in your chest is a Kentucky hug,” she told me.

Next it was time for bitters: A tray full of labeled crystal bottles made me feel part apothecary, part wizard as Brown guided me to mix my own combinations and explore how they brought out different notes in the bourbon. As we moved onto making cocktails—Fresh absolutely shines in a boulevardier—Brown shared the challenges she’d experienced as a Black woman in the bourbon industry. She enjoyed working in the guest experience arena, and was clearly good at it, but what she really wanted to do was make bourbon. The Edwardses were the first the give her that opportunity.

Cocktails served at the Manchester Hotel
Image courtesy of Matt Kisiday

In order to cement the accessibility and quality of Fresh Bourbon, the Edwardses make it using a pre-Prohibition style, which essentially means aging the “white dog,” or clear spirit that is the bourbon base, in multiple sizes of barrels, not just the industry standard 53-gallon. Sean told me they use six-gallon as well as 10-, 15-, 30-, and 53-gallon barrels “because we’re true craft, and it’s the ultimate small batch.” At first, smaller barrels were the only barrels they had access to, and even now, there are attempts within the industry to corner the market on 53-gallon barrels, making accessibility limited. The pre-Prohibition style allows Fresh to make the same quality of gold-medal-winning bourbon whether it has aged six months or several years, all “based on flavor profile,” Sean says.

Next it was off to the races. I was lucky enough to be visiting in April, and I got to experience a day at the nearby Keeneland Racetrack, a true locals’ track where you can get an up-close look at the racehorses on beautiful, intimate grounds. Even if you’re not visiting during the racing months of April and October, you can take a walking tour of this National Historic Landmark for morning training on the racetrack or behind the scenes at the stables. Its president and CEO, Shannon Arvin, the first woman to hold the position, also happens to be married to the visionary behind my next stop, Castle & Key Distillery.

Frankfort: Castle & Key

The capital city of Frankfort sits about 40 minutes outside of Lexington, with a population just under 30,000. Here’s where your prearranged transportation will come in handy, because Castle & Key distillery, just south of the city, is off the beaten path, to say the least.

When Will Arvin toured the abandoned Old Taylor Distillery Company in 2014, there was no running water, sewage, electricity, or roads. “It looked like Armageddon,” Arvin says. “Roofs were gone, windows were boarded up, the dreaded asbestos was everywhere.” The facility, which had been built in 1887, had been through several incarnations but had fallen into disrepair during the 1960s when bourbon fell out of fashion in favor of clear spirits. Of bourbon, Arvin says, “every Kentuckian should know how it’s made,” and the realization one night that he didn’t know had him googling distilleries for sale at 2 a.m. In the ensuing years, Arvin and the Castle & Key team have completely restored the property to offer three beautiful event spaces, a summer live music series—and award-winning vodka, gin, bourbon, and rye.

The Old Taylor Distillery Company that was transformed into the Castle & Key Distillery
Image courtesy of Tori Katz

You can keep your home base in Lexington for this visit or splurge for a stay in one of the charming, renovated farmhouses the distillery owns, which sleep anywhere from seven to 10 guests. You’ll want to visit between March and September for a distillery experience tour and tasting, where you’ll get the fascinating history not only of the property but also of bourbon itself. The process of making bourbon at Castle & Key is a combination of old equipment, like grain silos from the 1930s, and modern infrastructure. Water is sourced from an underground spring, visible in a 140,000-gallon aquifer built in the shape of a key by original property visionary and bourbon-quality advocate E.H. Taylor Jr.

Thoughtfulness is evident in every detail—their white-oak barrels are designed to last for up to 100 years, and they replant the trees necessary to provide the lumber. Head blender Brett Connors and his team source white and yellow corn and heirloom grains from local farms, and their attention to blending quality batches of bourbon and rye is evident in the awards these spirits win every year. Connors is passionate about not only his craft and Castle & Key, but also making the industry as a whole more inclusive. He says, “I was fortunate as an industry outsider to be able to get into the distilling industry, like many of the Castle & Key team, and we intend to hold the door open for others with unique and diverse backgrounds.”

The gardens of Castle and Key distillery
Image courtesy of Tori Katz

Another element distinctive to Castle & Key is its appeal to lovers of gin and vodka. Because bourbon typically takes several years to age, the distillery first began producing clear spirits—not an unusual move, but they took care to distinguish themselves outside of the bourbon world, which earned them multiple additional awards. Their classic Roots of Ruin gin uses eight botanicals including a unique combination of chamomile, ginger, and rosemary, and they offer seasonal labels: Rise with floral, citrusy, jammy notes in the spring and summer, and the funkier Harvest for cooler months, with licorice, caraway, and fennel providing an earthy element. These are gins you can treat like bourbon and drink neat or over ice, as well as in your favorite cocktails.

From Frankfort, it’s only a 30-minute trip to Shelbyville, but plan to stop for lunch first. Locals Food Hub & Pizza Pub is the perfect place to grab a sustaining lunch. (In fact, I took a nap on the tour bus afterward and woke up refreshed and ready to taste more bourbon.) Birch and Michelle Bragg cofounded this market and restaurant to make delicious pizzas and salads using local produce and ingredients, as well as to sell more than 200 products from local producers who supply everything from fresh vegetables to eggs to hot sauce to “bourbon barrel bark,” smoking chips made from Kentucky bourbon barrels.

Shelbyville: Jeptha Creed

Although she has a master’s degree in chemical engineering and 15 years’ experience in industrial scale distillation, Joyce Nethery would never have predicted that she would end up as a master distiller with her own label. She is one of the few female distillers in the industry, and Jeptha Creed reflects the unique approach she and her daughter, co-owner Autumn Nethery, bring to the bourbon-making process.

Bourbon barrels at the Jeptha Creed Distillery
Image courtesy of Jeptha Creed Distillery

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Jeptha Creed bourbon is that they grow almost everything they put into their spirits on their family farmland—from the corn to fruit trees to hot peppers that flavor five different varieties of Jeptha Creed vodka. Yet another unique attribute is their exclusive use of Bloody Butcher corn, a white corn that ends up dark purple after becoming speckled with red. This heirloom, non-GMO variety is beset with growing challenges—it costs five times more than regular corn to grow, offers a low yield, and is particularly appealing to wildlife. But its distinctive flavor yields a truly unique bourbon, especially in combination with the uncommon practice of malting the rye and wheat as well as the barley.

The distillery property itself is charmingly rustic, and you’ll want to spring for the barrel tour—a short bus ride down the hill to the barrel barn, where you’ll relax into leather recliners and sip bourbon straight from the barrel while getting the full inside story on how Jeptha Creed Distillery came to be owned, operated, and run by a mother-and-daughter team.

Despite being located on 64 acres of farmland, the distillery isn’t as out of the way as many others; it’s located just down Highway 64 from the Outlet Shoppes of the Bluegrass and only 10 minutes from Main Street. Take your time in town, where you have access to sandwiches on house-baked bread at McKinley’s Café and woman-owned Spotz Gelato with its award-winning banana pudding flavor. For more Kentucky flavor, you can set yourself up with a Derby hat or fascinator for race day at Polkadotted Pineapple Boutique or personalize an authentic silver julep cup at Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, family owned and operated since its founding in 1947, and once home to the Science Hill Female Academy, founded in 1825 by Julia A. Tevis.

Bourbon from Jeptha Creed Distillery
Image courtesy of Sarah Jane Sanders

Kentucky is a place of people who are passionate—about their craft, about quality, and about doing things in their own unique way. The result is a very bright future for bourbon, with a widening appeal for would-be bourbon drinkers everywhere, a broadening spectrum of opportunity for those eager to break into the industry, and even more to love for brownwater aficionados.

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