Destination Bourbon: Craft Bourbon Gets Urban in Kentucky
Story by Susan Reigler
The words “Kentucky bourbon distillery” often bring to mind pastoral images of historic still houses nestled on the banks of fast-flowing creeks or rows of barrel-filled rickhouses perched on breezy hilltops. But much of the recent growth in the bourbon industry has been decidedly urban, with craft distilleries opening in Kentucky’s most populous cities. Focused on creating small quantities of high-quality—and in some cases experimental—whiskeys, they range from newly constructed facilities of glass and steel to repurposed older buildings that have found new life with the installation of mash tubs, fermenters, and stills. Here are three urban craft distilleries in Kentucky that should be on every bourbon traveler’s must-visit list.
400 East Main Street, #110, Bowling Green
270-904-2021 | corsairdistillery.com
Housed in a portion of a downtown building once home to Bowling Green’s major department store, Corsair was founded in 2008 by Amy and Darek Bell and Andrew Webber. The spacious event area adjacent to the gift shop and tasting counter is furnished with conversational groupings of leather sofas and chairs. But the bottles arrayed on the shop shelves are not the usual Kentucky spirits suspects.
While there is a rye (dubbed Ryemageddon, it notably uses 5 percent chocolate rye malt), you will not find any bourbon here. The selection of award-winning spirits does include two malt whiskeys. Triple Smoke is made from three malted barleys separately smoked using peat, cherry wood, and beechwood. A hickory-smoked malt whiskey is called Wildfire.
Among the eyebrow-raising bottlings are Quinoa Whiskey, distilled from the South American “super grain” (health whiskey!) and Oatrage, which uses malted oats in its mash bill.
The actual distillery is surprisingly small for the variety of spirits made here. You could certainly be excused for thinking you’d stumbled into some sort of natural-foods compounding pharmacy rather than a distillery. Walls are lined with shelves of colorful jars containing herbs and spices used by head distiller Clay Smith in infusions for Vanilla Bean Vodka, Red Absinthe, Spiced Rum, at least two gin expressions, and several limited releases. In short, the tasting at the end of the tour is like no other.
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
120 N. 10th Street, Louisville
502-566-4999 | kentuckypeerless.com
Corky Taylor’s business background was in investment banking. After he retired, he quickly decided that walking on the beach was simply not the way he wanted to spend his days. So with his son Carson, he bought a red-brick former tobacco warehouse a few blocks west of Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row and set about resurrecting his great-grandfather Henry Kraver’s bourbon brand, Peerless. He even managed to acquire the Distilled Spirits Plant number, DSP-KY-50, originally assigned to Kraver’s Henderson, Kentucky distillery, which closed in 1917.
Peerless was a major brand before Prohibition. Kraver shipped bottles all over the country, including to the famed Palmer House hotel in Chicago, which he owned for a time. His descendants’ operation is on a much smaller scale, but the Taylors, along with head distiller Caleb Kilburn, are committed to very high (one might say peerless) quality.
That’s evident during a tour of the state-of-the art facility, lent character by exposed brick walls and high windows. Every step of whiskey making—milling the grain, cooking the mash, fermentation, distillation, barrel filling and aging, and bottling—takes place here. Peerless Rye, only two years old, was released to acclaim in 2018. Distilled from sweet mash, non-chill filtered, and bottled at barrel proof, it is truly a whiskey mature beyond its years. Peerless released their Kentucky Straight Bourbon in 2020.
New Riff Distilling
24 Distillery Way, Newport
859-261-7433 | newriffdistilling.com
New Riff’s striking Modernist building, with its burnished 60-foot copper column still on display in a glittering glass tower, is located near the Kentucky shore across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It is also across a parking lot from The Party Source liquor store, once owned by distillery founder Ken Lewis, who had to sell the business to his employees when he decided he wanted to get into the whiskey-making business. State law prohibits simultaneous ownership of a liquor retailer and a distillery.
The first bourbon release from New Riff, which opened in 2014, was O.K.I., sourced from MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The initials stand for “loved in Ohio, bottled in Kentucky, made in Indiana,” and it was a very well-balanced sip. New Riff Bourbon, a bottled-in-bond expression crafted on-site by head distiller Brian Sprance, has just been released. It is non-chill filtered with a high rye mash bill of 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley.
In the years it has been open, New Riff has become a very popular event venue in the greater Cincinnati area. The spacious Tower Room overlooks the Queen City’s skyline and has a hip rooftop patio abutting the still tower. Furnished with sleek black neo-Victorian loveseats, it features a welcoming firepit that keeps the space cozy in cool weather.