Many Kentuckians will acknowledge that Kentucky’s three main contributions to the world are bourbon, horses, and basketball. Bourbon & Barns (link here) covers two of those three by exploring the intersection between bourbon and thoroughbred horses. Written by Griffin Coop—a published horse author—Bourbon & Barns tours Kentucky’s distilleries and horse farms, both of which succeeded historically because of Kentucky’s limestone water.
One of my favorite distillery start-up stories is Wilderness Trail Distillery, which I’ve been following from the very beginning. Just over three years ago, I made sure to reserve my spot to be able to purchase bottles from the first (legal) bourbon distillation run in Danville, Kentucky since anyone can remember. I still have at least a year to go (probably more) before Wilderness Trail releases its bourbon, but in the meantime Griffin interviewed co-owner Shane Barker, so I’m excited to share the Bourbon & Barns post from February 2017 about Wilderness Trail Distillery (check out the original post linked here):
Wilderness Trail Distillery - Growing and Expanding
February 15, 2017
Wilderness Trail Distillery recently announced the purchase of 13 additional acres of property adjacent to its current facilities in Danville, KY. Plans for the new property include additional barrelhouses for aging, a new visitors’ center and a space for future events. Bourbon and Barns recently interviewed Wilderness Trail Master Distillery and Co-Owner Shane Baker about the distillery’s success and growth.
Bourbon and Barns: How did Wilderness Trail Distillery get its start?
Shane Baker: The distillery started in 2012 after we had the fortitude from over a decade of operating our Ferm Solutions Inc. business, which supports other alcohol operations around the world. We built our expertise and capital over the years to properly produce and age Kentucky whiskey.
BB: How did Wilderness Trail Distillery get its name?
SB: Our distillery is located in Historic Danville, Kentucky and actually located off part of the famed Wilderness Trail that brought settlers west. We pay homage to our local history and the area we live and work in.
BB: How has the distillery grown in recent years? I know the distillery recently purchased 13 acres of property. How will that property be used?
SB: The Distillery has been growing and expanding since its inception, partly due to spreading out the required steps to finalize our bourbon operation, land, distillery, barrelhouses, bottling facility, etc. Even though we have yet to release the first bottle of whiskey, our other spirit lines have grown into over 20 states and keep us challenged on maintaining stock in the gift shop with our Harvest Rum and Blue Heron Vodka. We purchased the additional land for securing ground for future rickhouses and obtaining more event-oriented spaces for community activities. We are a family-owned distillery and we simply operate from a budget, which just takes us time to get things done.
BB: How big is the distillery today?
SB: Our distillery will produce around 4,000 barrels this year of Kentucky bourbon and rye whiskey. We also will produce the equivalent of another hundred or so barrels for our vodka and rum spirits. We have a 40-foot tall bourbon column that produces about 2.5 barrels per hour from our 4,000 gallon fermenters. We are the third-largest production “craft” distillery in Kentucky. We are the only craft distillery in Kentucky that can make vodka and we have a second copper pot system with columns that produces our rum and finishes our vodka.
BB: What products does the distillery offer? What products does the distillery plan to offer in the future?
SB: We currently offer Harvest Rum, made with Kentucky sorghum molasses and aged in bourbon barrels and we offer our unfiltered three grain Blue Heron Vodka that is made from our Bourbon Whiskey distillate. We will start to release our first whiskey this December as a Bottled In Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon and another release of our Kentucky straight rye whiskey. We have some limited edition releases such as our primary wheated bourbon mashbill made with rye as a comparison, some yeast changes for comparison but mainly we produce two whiskeys, bourbon and rye whiskey.
BB: Wilderness Trail makes a variety of spirits. Are there big differences in the processes for making each spirit?
SB: Absolutely, they all start with quality local Kentucky grains, which are actually from a seed farmer, for more consistency. From there the grain and cook processes change between bourbons and ryes and the yeast strains we use are different for a vodka, bourbon, rye and rum. The fermentation time will vary between our whiskeys and vodka and rum some as rum is the longest and vodka would be the highest ABV, but the whiskeys are close at this point. Distillation is another process difference between our classes of spirits. Our whiskeys come off the column double-distilled at 135 proof, our rum comes off double-distilled from our pot still and our vodka starts its life as a double-distilled bourbon distillate from the column and then get distilled several more times in the pot still and rectification columns to turn it into 190 proof vodka. We use the same limestone filtered spring water to proof all of our spirits. Our whiskeys go into new charred oak barrels to rest for 5-7 years, while our rum only ages for around 2.5 years and our vodka rests for around a week before getting bottled.
BB: What does it mean that Wilderness Trail uses a sweet mash process?
SB: We do make some batches of sour mash whiskey but primarily we produce our whiskeys using the sweet mash infusion process, which is clean fresh grains, fresh water, and fresh yeast at every set. We don’t lower the pH of our mashes down with any acids or from backset (stillage from a prior batch). We believe it lends to a softer distillate, more flavorful small grain mashes and better control of the congeners we are aging in the barrel. Infusion mashing is simply that we do not cook any of our small grains over 155F and we don’t apply any heat again after our initial cook temperature is obtained. This is all the science behind giving the yeast the proper environment for making quality spirits.
BB: What can visitors expect on your tour?
SB: An hour-long journey of history and the science behind making alcohol. A look behind the scenes of a working laboratory and a close encounter with the entire process from cook through barreling of whiskey. They will learn about the process and understand some highlights of the bourbon-making process and a view of the infrastructure for making and aging Kentucky Whiskey the traditional way, with a historic visitors’ center, distillery, bottling facility and multiple rickhouses nestled in the rolling hills of Danville.
BB: What is your favorite bourbon cocktail and how do you make it just right?
SB: I personally am a neat drinker. I am not opposed to cocktails, I just like to taste and enjoy the whole bourbon experience: the smell, taste and look of it. I know how much hard work goes into making a barrel and I want to cherish it. But if I were to suggest a bourbon cocktail it would have to be our Whiskey Sour recipe. It is simple and just disappears when it’s made right with freshly squeezed lemons and oranges. It’s just using quality ingredients that makes it just right.
BB: Please add anything else you would like.
SB: We have over 13,000 barrel storage capacity currently and planning to build another 10,000 barrel by 2018/2019.
We purposely have not released a whiskey as we want a mature bourbon to be introduced to the market. Buying and selling someone else’s whiskey while ours was aging just wasn’t something we wanted to do.
Our bourbon is unique and doesn’t exist on the market. Our grains are grown from here in Danville, our bourbon yeast was cultured from the original Stitzel Weller distillery from the late 80’s where my Grandmother Doris Ballard worked, our mash bill uses a costly high small grains instead of high corn, lots of factors that will set our bourbon apart as well as our rye whiskey. It is a refreshing new rye mashbill compared to the majority of sourced rye on the market.
Lastly, we have the world’s only whiskey-powered device. Our spirit safe, which we call Walker Woodfill, uses our low and high wine distillate to power a kinetic device that shows Walker pushing a barrel - a very cool Vendome masterpiece!