As a distiller I find Kentucky Artisan to be among one of the most interesting of distilleries in Kentucky for many reasons, not least of which is their openness to experiment with all manner of stills, grains, and ageing, as well as Steve Thompson’s love of old stills and his subsequent collection and the fact that they malt their own barley, and consistently turn out top notch whiskies. Master Distiller Jade Peterson and I have become fast friends since I met him at the distillery last year. Jade is an up and coming name and a very good distiller, one of whom I often turn to for questions myself.
Jade Peterson and Author Mike Veach at Kentucky Artisan Distillery.
Jade, tell us a little about your background, how did you get into distillation and subsequently become distiller at Kentucky Artisan Distillery?
Well, I wish it was a grander story of bootlegging family members and famous last names but it’s not. I moved to Kentucky about five years ago from northern Illinois shortly after we closed our family’s logistics and manufacturing business. I continued to chase a career in the facilities management feild for a mega corporation. However, after the move, I quickly learned that particular career was not for me. I debated on moving back to Illinois to find work or keep exploring opportunities within Kentucky. Someone expressed to me that there are two big industries in Kentucky; bourbon and horses. I gave it some thought and began to look for an opening within the bourbon industry. After expressing my desire to shift careers, a friend of a friend help me to secure a job within Kentucky Artisan Distillery as a part-time bottler. It was difficult changing careers. I was working three jobs at the time, but I had gotten my foot in the door. Jeremy Dever, our general manager, aided in cultivating my desire to learn about the industry and took much of his own time to show me that there was more to distillery than just bottling bourbon. It created a hunger in me to gain knowledge and learn the various mechanics of distilling. After a few months of working under Jeremy, I had a full-time position split between the bottling room and other less desirable shifts within the distillery. From there I continued to work my way up the ladder. I learned a great deal from Tripp, our “Master Distiller” at the time, and great coworkers, such as; Connor Shaughnessy, currently of Luxrow Distillery, and my friend Aaron Kleinhelter. These guys taught me a lot of the basics. They, also, helped reaffirm that consistency and dedication to the craft are very important, if I want to excel. I, also, had the backing of Steve Thompson the Majority Owner and Managing Partner of Kentucky Artisan. He challenged me to keep advancing my skills, try new things and, above all, learn as much as possible. Steve has taken the time to show me how to distill. He took me beyond the basics of running a computer program, instead encouraged me to learn the craft hands on. Within our distillery, we have zero automation and I think that’s a key to my love and interest in the craft.
You guys have done some interesting projects as contract distillers, I know some of those are pretty tight lipped agreements, but could you tell us a little about the recent experiment with Michael Veach and some of the interesting parameters of that experiment?
Yes, of course. This project was a blast. It allowed a few groups of bourbon industry leaders to come together to form what will be a great end product. Mr. Veach along with the crew from the Jack Rose Dining Salon in Washington DC came into this project with an open mind. In additions to that, they brought a few elements that were to be incorporated into the bourbon. We set the desired bourbon mash bill with three traditional components; corn, rye, and malted barley. however when it came to the varietals we added our wild cards, Mr. Veach selected Hickory cane corn as our base and a chocolate malt to advance the flavor profile. We set a traditional four-day fermentation. While having numerous mash tastings, we watched the mash each day hoping that enough chocolate malt was used to carry over through distillation process. Then we finally made it to the still. I ran our oldest 100 % copper still for this project. That still was a critical component. It afforded us the ability to keep the proof very low and avoid the need for much cutting before it was barreled.
I really loved working on this project. It was exciting when the copper heated up filling the air with the aroma of mocha and hot chocolate replacing the normal bourbon perfume. Tour guests were very pleased with the smell and happy to have been part of the process; after we explained why it smelled more like a confectionary than a distillery that day.
We have these barrels aging now at our warehouse in Crestwood, Kentucky. We continue to look forward to the future of this product and the growing partnership.
How long have you guys been producing your own malt?
This will be going on year 2.
It was initially the pet project of our original “Master Distiller,” Tripp. He was working on getting this up and running before he accepted a position with another company. Prior to him leaving, we run some test batches showing that we had down some of basic principles. However, after he left, it sat dormant for a few months until we were able to put some man power towards it; along with studying the process, and a revamp to areas that weren’t working efficiently . As it with all projects in a craft distillery, it took some reengineering and numerous attempts to get something that was both consistent and cost effective. We have some products now such as our Whiskey Row Bourbon that we strive to use 100% of our malted grains for the new make product.
Do you have a specific style you try to achieve or are your learning to make multiple types?
We currently do not sway much from our standards and seek to produce a “standard distillers style malt.” I have been involved in conversations with some local breweries about malting some in house local grains for them to experiment with and hopefully learn some new methods along the way.
Is the barley local?
Yes, all the barley that we malt in house is grown here in Kentucky in Oldham County for the last three years.
Do you source other grains locally?
Yes sir, absolutely. We try to stay as close to 100 % Kentucky grain as we can. We have partnered with Waldeck Farms of Oldham County for the last 6 years. They grow our rye, corn and a portion of our barley. This farm is less than a half mile door to door. We pick up our grains twice a week via tractor and gravity wagon. Having the farm that close to us is a fun addition to our distillery and allows for us to be part of the growing process.
You guys have a very wide range of distilling and fermentation apparatus that you can select from in the distillery including stainless and cypress fermenters and column and pot stills, can you tell us a little about the variation and do you have any favorites amongst all your “toys”?
We currently have eight fermenters, three cypresses and five stainless. On a typical day we have mash in six of them. The remaining ones are for specialty and experimental batches that we need to keep out of the normal rotation. I love the nostalgic look of the old cypress, but I’ll take the stainless when it comes to cleaning and sanitation any day. As for stills this is where it gets a little wild. Not including glass and lab stills, we have six functioning stills. I could have never learned to run all six stills if it wasn’t for the help of Chris Miller, our current Facilities Manager. Early on at Kentucky Artisan Distillery, Chris had me assist him in the instillation of two of our stills. This was a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of distillation. As for the stills themselves we have a wide variety. Starting with the oldest one. It is an early 1900’s itinerate still. I loving refer to as the “donkey still.” And yes, it is still working. Then we have our mid 1930’s 365-gallon copper pot still. It was originally from the early times. Our 1930’s 1125- copper pot that originated in the old Forester Distillery. We, then, have our mid 1990’s 125-gallon test batch still. Leading up to our mid 90’s 700-gallon gin still. Lastly, finishing off with our big boy Jeffery the 2000-gallon pot still that we had retrofitted and updated in 2017 from Vendome. We use all of these stills for one project or another. The longer I distill the more and more I gravitate to the older equipment. My favorite is our 1125 copper still. It was by far the hardest to learn to run, but once you learn this still it becomes a lot of fun. You really get to learn the sounds, the smell, and the feel of it. It gives you sense that you are a part of the products’ crafting.
What’s next on the horizon for Kentucky Artisan, what are you excited about?
We have distilled for many companies involved in this market, most notability Jefferson’s. They are a stake holder in the distillery here. Over the last few years, I would guess, we have distilled or blended over 20 brands currently out on the market. The craftsmanship and hands on approach we have keeps us in a small niche market. There seems to be a want for our services. We have had some discussions; along with being included in some rumors about possible expansions of our distillery in the near future. However, until we break ground on any new expansion, I plan to stay occupied with the projects at hand.
We will, also, be moving forward with the addition of our 3rd warehouse. It is scheduled to begin construction early summer of this year. That will give us the room to house our increased production from the last year. As for me, personally, I am the most excited see us get our facilities up to full production potential. That is probably number one for me. When I started at Kentucky Artisan Distillery we made just over 300 barrels. This doubled number more than doubled to over 700. Once again, this number doubled to just over 1400 last year. Currently we are on pace to break the 2000-barrel mark this year. That’s not bad for a non-automated pot still facility. I am, also, excited to see the continued growth of the tour center. Liz Ratliff has set up and designed a great tour program. That program has had over 7,000 visitors within the last year. The tours keep our distillery crew on our toes answering questions and helping where we can. With all the growth the work never ends here but It’s an exciting time to be at Kentucky Artisan Distillery .
Any advice for up and coming distillers?
It seems so simple when I think to myself what advice would I give…………Well, you have to be ready to work. It is better to learn the craft and not just what button to push. You should make a point to read old books and talk to the people with dirty clothes and rough hands. Allow yourself to become a craftsman. Set out to be more than “JUST A DISTILLER”.