With September’s designation as National Bourbon Heritage Month, Kentucky’s signature spirit industry will celebrate with festivals, parties and the obligatory imbibing. And while Bluegrass Distillers, located at 501 W. 6th St. in Lexington, will partake in the celebrations, it’ll also be focusing two months further out to Nov. 11, 2017 — the day the distillery goes straight.
There are many key moments for a distillery: when its Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) number is issued; when the first drops of spirit condense and drip from the still; when the first bottle is filled and sealed; and when the first bottle is sold. But for whiskey distilleries, there’s one more: when a barrel hits two years old.
Contrary to common belief, neither bourbon nor whiskey generally has a minimum age requirement. But when an American whiskey reaches two years of maturation time in a new charred-oak barrel it can be labeled as “straight whiskey.” (Additional requirements for an American straight whiskey include barreling at not greater than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume, production within a single state and no additives for flavor or color.)
It’s an historic designation going back to the era when bourbon legends like James E. Pepper, George T. Stagg and Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. were titans in the Kentucky bourbon industry. For Sam Rock and Nathan Brown, two of the founders of Bluegrass Distillers, that history is what inspired them to build their modern distillery.
Brown also owns Old World Timber, a reclaimed wood company. At one point, he and Rock visited the then-defunct Old Taylor Distillery Company site (now the site of Castle & Key Distillery) looking for salvageable wood, especially from the warehouses.
“We basically come up with the idea of starting a distillery when were down there … we went back in the mash room where they have the tanks and we were looking at those and thought, well, we can probably do this,” Rock said.
But the Taylor distillery was one of the largest of its era, and Rock acknowledges they had no intention of achieving the same scale.
Thinking about the difference in size, Rock laughs. “I guess [we’re] a tenth of one of those mash tanks,” he said. From the moment of decision to the opening of an operational distillery took years. But once they had DSP in hand, the whole world of spirits production was available — including vodka, gin, rum, brandy and more — if they wanted it. Which they didn’t.
“We decided if we’re going to be different and develop a brand of bourbon and be known for a craft bourbon — a handmade bourbon — we’d need to just make bourbon and not other spirits just to fill up bottles,” said Brown.
Aging as a point of distinction
To date, Bluegrass Distillers has released four spirits, including two rye bourbons with differing mash bills, a wheated bourbon and an exclusive Blue Dog Whiskey. The Blue Dog Whiskey incoporates locally grown heirloom blue corn in its mash bill. It’s currently available as a clear unaged spirit but will be released as a mature bourbon in the future.
The future holds much for Bluegrass Distillers, especially with its first straight bourbon so close. Offering a straight whiskey is equally a psychological benchmark and a business one.
“We’re really excited because there’s no substitute for just aging,” Brown said.
Rock echoes the sentiment. “For our team it means a lot. In the craft world, it means a lot. Because there aren’t that many out there that have straight stuff. It means a lot just in terms that it was the most significant goal that we set. I think it means that we’re here to stay.”
Rock is quick to explain the financial ramifications, too.
“The other thing that it means is that our product is much more marketable internationally. When we talk to a distributor, they always expect people to have really young stuff. And we can say, ‘No, no, we’ve got straight stuff,’” he said.
With such importance placed on one date, they’ve made the countdown literal with a timer on the company’s website ticking off the seconds until Nov. 11.