Lisa Wicker is in my list of top five people of all time. I love her and I’d not trade her for the world! Her response to my formal interview speaks to her soul and it fits the unstructured format of this blog so well that I decided that I would run it as she sent it. I sent her a list of questions as I do all interviews and I wrote up a big gushing introduction about how awesome she is and she turned around and blew me out of the water with this. For those who don’t know Lisa, suffice it for me to say that she is one of the steady few “go to’s” I have when I have a question regarding alcohol production (or general bullshitting) having worked at multiple wineries and distilleries she has become a bit of a “guru” regarding production practices and truthfully she should have been awarded the title of “first female master distiller” in KY post prohibition. Hell, she should have had that same title in Indiana. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy!
Lisa Wicker on Lisa Wicker
My background is so awkward, I have told myself for a long time I need to figure out how to make it interesting and not so drawn out!
I grew up with Bill Oliver of Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana. It is one of the largest wineries outside of the state of California. At the time, it was a small family venture but I got my head around the idea making alcohol was a “thing.” My first stab at making wine was in college in my Grandmother’s sauerkraut crock. Absolutely no idea what I was doing, I remember my father calling me to “get home and clean up this mess.” Headspace was not something I accounted for, the whole experiment was a failure.
Fast forward through years I moved with my family to several states, raising children and was always trying to figure out with the moves and lots of odd jobs what I would do “when I grew up.” We moved back to Indiana, Columbus, an hour from Bloomington where I grew up. A series of happy accidents and I founded and ran a costume shop for Dancers’ Studio. It grew to a sizable shop, all not-for-profit in what was considered an “underserved” area. We costumed small companies and studios in Southern Indiana. There was a staff of very dedicated and talented women who were also hilarious and fun to work with.
Two wonderful women I know in Columbus jokingly asked if I wanted to harvest grapes at Simmons Winery in Bartholomew County. I was starting to costume the Nutcracker, but it was August and I love to be outside. Weeks later, we were still harvesting and I was juggling both things. David Simmons sold grapes to an old friend of mine, David Schrodt who had been a winemaker at Oliver Winery years earlier. After I showed up with the other women and a truck load of grapes to Brown County Winery, Schrodt called me a few months later to ask me to come to work for him. We worked together years earlier on the maintenance crew at the DNR, my summer job in college…I’ve never minded dirty jobs. I found a talented textile major to take over the costume shop and went to work with Schrodt and Jonas, his son, in production. Three days in I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing. It is all so elemental, and the foundation in agriculture it’s all magic. Schrodt is crazy-smart and very generous with what he’d learned over the years of making wine and running his own business with his wife and family. I read everything I could, I would go back to him on why or how he did things the same or differently. I pieced together my education between Purdue, U.C. Davis and everything else I could get my hands on. Schrodt would talk with me about distillation often and fed my interest, beyond this, no comment.
A grower we purchased grapes from let Schrodt know she would not have grapes the next year, she and her husband were going to build a winery in Marion County, Kentucky. Schrodt told her to hire me to help her plan and she offered me the position as their winemaker. I picked up and moved to Kentucky. My family has been very patient with me! I built the physical winery after retrofitting a barn on their property to make wine before the construction was finished. Lots of crazy stories with the start up and through construction there…the first three days with an inexperienced crew we crushed eleven tons of fruit, started wine with no temperature control, sliced the heck out of my hand, was commuting every day five hours because my youngest was still home before she started college. My second day in was 23.5 hours. But, I loved it. I had to build tents around the tanks in the barn that was under construction to add an insulated area and I had air conditioners installed in the tents to control the temperature. There is a lifetime of insane stories from the beginning of the project.
A month in, I met Steve Beam, he was opening Limestone Branch at the same time. We joked I had a license and no building, he had a building and no license. He was always willing to help me when I needed an extra set of hands. I started working with him in the evenings, transferring some of my winemaking knowledge to making spirits. The winery owners divorced, my future was uncertain there, I booked a ticket to Sonoma, thought I would leave Kentucky for a harvest and return at a time I thought it would be easier to look for another position, but Steve and Paul Beam took me to dinner and hired me the next day. It was “baptism by fire.” Steve trusted me with some really important projects. I had already run some trials at the winery for the Moonshiners/Tim Smith project. Moving into the grain ferments in the heat of the summer with little temperature control was insane but a challenge I will always be grateful Steve charged me with. It was bootcamp in insane heat. Let’s just say Tim Smith and I didn’t always see eye to eye…managing that project I wouldn’t trade for anything, though at the time I was taking no prisoners. At an event in Louisville for this project, I met Alan and at the time, his girlfriend, now wife, Kimberly. There was so much to do, the learning curve was steep but I would not have learned so much so fast any other way. Chattanooga bakery approached the Beam family about making a joint project, MoonPie Moonshine. I caught a lot of grief from the “truth seekers” over my work on that project, but putting it into production in the small space available, I am proud of my work. The chocolate version won “World’s Best Liquor” in London. Steve gave me full credit on Precinct 6, the first brown spirit release at Limestone Branch. I was fired there after Luxco purchased fifty percent interest in the distillery. I will always be grateful to Steve for helping me make the transition from winemaking to distilling.
At a spirits judging during the time I was working at Limestone Branch, I had the good fortune to meet Dave Scheurich. He has and is mentoring me. It is humbling, the man is a walking encyclopedia of process and product. I will be eternally grateful for how generous he is with what he knows, and shares. He really is an industry treasure. He can be hard on me, but only in the way it is something I need to hear or fix or change my mindset. Scheurich is still an active consultant, but is best known for bringing Woodford Reserve to life.
The industry has grown so quickly, I had an offer my last official day at Limestone Branch, it wasout of state and I still have too much to learn to leave this area. It’s Napa Valley for distilled spirits. I ended up consulting in South Carolina, had an amazing offer with a well known and established craft distillery when Ted Huber found out I was looking. I was just a couple days away from accepting the offer when he asked if we could talk before I accepted it. He offered me so much creative freedom and the distillery is gorgeous! I jumped. Lots of good work there and product development. I always refer to these products as “cash flow product,” craft distillery start up is a reverse pyramid scheme, all the money goes out the front door. Spiced Rum, I would zest limes for 350 gallons by hand, Rock & Rye, all the employees of German descent loved the anise, had to pull it back for everyone else! Blackberry whiskey with real blackberry everything. Ted was awesome about letting the rum project get out of hand. Silver Rum, Spiced Rum, barreled Rum. I miss working with him.
Ted allowed and encouraged me to visit the distillery at Mount Vernon after I had a conversation with Tim Larner who manages the daily operations during the distilling season. Steve Bashore, the Director of Trades and Distiller, has given me an open invitation to be there when I can. I have three seasons under my belt and long distance consulting on a brandy project. It is soul food there for me, five wood fired
Vendome reproduction pots and rye whiskey! You walk out of there late in the day smelling of wood smoke and sweet mash, it is an amazing place. Next, the gristmill.
I had no intention of leaving Starlight, but Drew Kulsveen put my name in the hat to oversee the construction of a new craft distillery, Preservation, six minutes from my home in Bardstown.
After tearfully resigning at Starlight, I have spent the last year on the project, reconstruction of two barns, a visitor center and distillery and a 47,000 square foot warehouse. Ask me about certifying a well or trying to square an old tobacco barn…asked about general advice, plan two and a half times what the cost looks like on paper, and two times the timeline. I had planned to stay on as the distiller, but the emails kept coming and the phone keeps ringing. When I moved from winemaking to distilling, there were 250ish craft distilleries. There are now over 1300.
A month ago I started my consulting business, Saints & Monsters, LLC. A couple of drinks
required for the name explanation. It is sort of like sourced whiskey, the story will change to fit the day. I signed my first client, Samson & Surrey, a portfolio that includes Few Spirits, Widow Jane, Philadelphia Blue Coat, and Brenne. My projects for them are varied, I look forward to when I can share what I am up to.
Because it is my way, I have answered every question Alan presented me out of order. So, to answer the questions I have missed in this stream on consciousness…my favorite wines,
Rhone varietals, French or domestic. I love Northern Sonoma. At Brown County, Schrodt’s Old Barrel Port is a favorite. Reminds me, I need a bottle. Schrodt was barreling this in used
Bourbon cooperage before it was cool. Indiana and Kentucky wines, Chambourcin Rose is delicious. Cabernet Franc from this area, if well managed, is amazing. A well crafted Seyval Blanc.
Go to bourbon!? Ok, Alan. I narrowed it down. Four Roses single barrel, always good, all so different. Woodford Reserve if I am with Scheurich. 🙂 Their Distillery series, really great stuff. Wild Turkey, many of them, think they are overlooked sometimes. Heaven Hill, Parker’s
Collection releases, white label when you cannot keep everyone in whiskey, Pikesville Rye, My daughter and son-in-laws version of Makers Private Selection, Star Hill Farms, from their
restaurant there, anything Alan makes, Ted’s whiskey, looks like a barrel or two of rye released from when I was there, Willett everything, Drew has an amazing palate, Terry and crew on it with the new stuff, Old Weller, all versions, Old Fitzgerald, Stitzel and HH, Beam black label, Booker’s, Knob Hill special releases, craft series, Evan Williams 12 year, Have you had Pam’s Michter’s release? Delicious. Barton single barrel. You asked and you know me. Cheers!