Explore the micro-distilleries run by mega-distillers

Explore the micro-distilleries run by mega-distillers

To keep pace in the whisky innovation race, some of the world's biggest distilleries are thinking small

Production | 19 Dec 2022 | Issue 187 | By Susannah Skiver Barton

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Inspired, or perhaps spurred, by the success of craft distillers, established players across Scotch, Irish, and American whisk(e)y have made innovation and experimentation top priorities. Yet although they have ample means, these distilleries are, ironically, too big for such endeavours.

Take Ireland’s Midleton Distillery, famous for its pot stills of record-setting size; any new whiskey there would have to be trialled in batches measuring in the thousands of litres. And by 2015, the facility was actually at capacity, which distiller Katherine Condon says was hindering innovation. Condon heads up the Micro Distillery, which Midleton opened expressly as a hub for experimentation. She says it has allowed the company to “keep driving forward with innovation” without impacting the main distillery.

Likewise, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience gives American whiskey mega-distiller Heaven Hill a petite outlet for testing ideas. “Doing one barrel a day, it’s a whole lot easier to experiment and have some innovations, as opposed to [master distiller Conor O’Driscoll] at Bernheim trying to do 1,500 barrels a day,” says Jodie Filiatreau, artisanal distiller at the Experience. Diageo, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, and Moët Hennessy have all invested in smaller outfits too, each of them offering new playgrounds for the imagination.

These diminutive distilleries sit in the shadow of the world’s leading whiskey makers, and are inarguably small by comparison. Nevertheless, context matters: most of them operate on such a scale and with access to such resources that they dwarf those of a typical craft distiller.

As great oaks from little acorns grow, extraordinary whiskies from small distilleries are born. Think small and discover a whole new world of drams.

The Fed B. Noe Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky

The James B. Beam Distilling Co.
Fred B. Noe Distillery
Clermont, Kentucky, USA

Opened in the summer of 2021 on the grounds of Beam’s Clermont campus, this gleaming distillery is the new home of such small-batch collection brands as Booker’s and Baker’s, as well as the acclaimed Little Book series. It also serves as a workshop for eighth-generation master distiller Freddie Noe, who brought the idea to then-Beam Suntory CEO Matt Shattock in 2017.

“I was about to release Little Book and he says, ‘Is there anything that you need to make more of this, to do more things like this, or to make your career progress in the company?’” Freddie recalled in August 2021. “I said, ‘A small-scale distillery’ and he kind of looked at me funny.” The idea was to make it feasible to experiment without guaranteed success. “Here we have the opportunity to do some oops,” Freddie said.

Freddie Noe , Beam master distiller

But the Fred B. Noe Distillery is more than an innovation plant, especially given its capacity to fill 65 to 70 barrels a day. “We wanted to replicate [the Clermont facility] in as many ways as possible to ensure that when we do hit on something that could’ve been an oops but turned out to be great, that we can scale it up to the big distillery,” Freddie explained.

Tiny Taste: Booker’s Bourbon, ABV varies (cask strength). Beam’s most enduring innovation and the anchor whiskey of the Fred B. Noe Distillery.

The Midleton Distillery in Co Cork, Ireland

Midleton Distillery
Micro Distillery
Midleton, Ireland

When Irish Distillers repurposed an old warehouse as a space for its Micro Distillery in 2015, the intent was to develop whiskies from information and recipes found in the 19th-century notebooks of John Jameson III. Distiller Katherine Condon explains that they found evidence of different cereals being used in the past, such as rye and oats. “Let’s just try and bring them back to life and reimagine them.”

Most such reimaginings are still maturing, but the first was released in the autumn of 2021 as part of the Method and Madness range. Rye and Malt comprises 60 per cent rye grain and 40 per cent malted barley and was double distilled, with maturation in ex-bourbon casks. While it obviously showcases an atypical mash bill, it also underwent many rounds of tinkering on the Micro Distillery’s manually operated stills before a final profile was achieved.

Katherine Condon, distiller at Irish Distillers' Midleton Distillery

With a capacity of about one barrel a day, the Micro Distillery is, indeed, tiny. However, its value to Irish Distillers goes far beyond production volumes, enabling the company to trial innovations without fear of gumming up the works at the main plant or impacting existing brands. “It’s our playground, and it’s okay to fail,” Condon says. “If we’re not failing, we’re not progressing either.”

Tiny Taste: Method and Madness Rye and Malt, 46% ABV. The first mature whiskey from the Micro Distillery, inspired by John Jameson III’s records.

Diageo"s Leven Distillery in Scotland contains an experimental "process liquid development area"

Leven Distillery
Leven, Scotland

Normally whisky is already complete by the time it enters the bottling hall, but at Diageo’s Leven facility, new-make spirit flows alongside high-speed packaging lines. Built over a period of several years starting in 2005, expressly to facilitate innovation that could be scaled up to the company’s larger plants, the so-called process liquid development area has been designed for maximum flexibility at every step.

There’s a mash tun that can be changed from semi-lauter to mash converter, four temperature-controlled washbacks, and a pair of stills with interchangeable heads – onion, ball, and lampglass – that can mimic a variety of spirit profiles. Further customisation can be dialled in when cutting and condensing, and there’s a column still for grain whisky as well. The number and variety of possible trials, from testing process changes to targeting novel flavours, make Leven perhaps the world’s most agile distillery.

“Running these projects through the pilot distillery allows us to gain key insights and learnings before taking those successful projects forward onto the main distilleries,” says Diageo project scientist Richard Cowley. “For example, the work we carried out looking at bringing rye back into the Scotch production process as a cereal allowed us to develop and shape the full-scale production processes which now are in place as regular campaigns.”

While Leven is fully licensed, it’s unlikely ever to yield a single malt, grain, or blended whisky of its own. The results of its work can be tasted throughout Diageo’s vast portfolio – though you’d never be able to tell.

Tiny Taste: Johnnie Walker High Rye, 45% ABV. Made with 60 per cent rye grain whisky, a style that originated at the Leven distillery.

Heaven Hill"s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

Heaven Hill Distillery
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Louisville has a few working distilleries on its downtown Whiskey Row now, but the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience – nicknamed EWBE (you-bee) – was the first of the modern era when it opened in 2013. Located near where the real Evan Williams, an 18th-century Welsh immigrant, built his distillery, the facility primarily serves as a tourist destination.

However, the petite distillery set-up – with four fermenters at 750 gallons each and a pair of small pot stills – is fully functional and run by hand, able to fill a barrel a day under the watchful eye of artisanal distiller Jodie Filiatreau. “It’s a fun place to work,” says Filiatreau. He has distilled a variety of whiskeys over the years, and innovation is top of mind at all times.

Enjoying a dram at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

“Everything is unique to that facility,” Filiatreau explains. Among the whiskeys he has tried out are three different ryes, two wheated bourbons, a high-rye bourbon, and bourbons made with specialty malts. He’ll sometimes vary the barrel as well, experimenting with air-dried versus kiln-dried oak, distinct species such as chinquapin oak, and differing char levels.

The distillery’s output may be tiny, but its contributions are highly valuable. “A couple of the mash bills that we’ve done at the EWBE, they’re going to incorporate those into the Grain-to-Glass project,” Filiatreau says, referring to a collaborative effort between Heaven Hill and partner farms and cooperages to develop new whiskeys. Blazing a trail for bourbon and rye? Sounds right in line with the brand’s namesake.

Tiny Taste: Square Six Straight Bourbon, 47.5% ABV. The debut release, named for the original site of Evan Williams’ first distillery, near where the Experience now stands.

The Lighthouse, Glenmorangie"s new whisky "laboratory"

Glenmorangie Distillery
The Lighthouse
Tain, Scotland

Dr Bill Lumsden is known for his off-the-wall experiments, but until last year, the director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg had to make do with whatever he could get away with in the main distilleries. That changed with the opening of The Lighthouse, a sleek glass-enrobed column set alongside Glenmorangie’s picturesque Highland structures.

Purpose-built as a laboratory for every wild idea Lumsden can dream up, the one million-litre distillery can process any type of cereal grain, not just malted barley, and can even be employed for non-grain ingredients such as fruit. Its mash tun works in a variety of ways, including cooking under pressure, and temperature-controlled washbacks allow fermentations to run much longer than Glenmorangie’s typical 55 hours.

Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie

Not wanting to deviate from Glenmorangie’s famously tall stills, Lumsden still found a way to add flexibility through “bells and whistles” including a purifier and water jacket, which can be tweaked at will to create spirit styles that are far removed from Glenmorangie’s delicate, floral character. “Don’t think of a giraffe here,” he said when introducing the distillery to the public in September 2021. “Think of the neck of a brontosaurus.”

Mature whisky from The Lighthouse is still years away, but considering Lumsden’s reputation and Glenmorangie’s high quality standards, it is sure to be worth the wait.

Tiny Taste: Glenmorangie Signet, 46% ABV. One of Lumsden’s most significant innovations and a harbinger for the potential of The Lighthouse.

Outside the Old Forester Main Street Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Credit: Andrew Hyslop


Old Forester Main Street Distillery
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Old Forester came full circle when it opened a distillery on Louisville’s Main Street in 2018: back in the 1870s, this downtown area – known as Whiskey Row – was the brand’s birthplace. The bulk of Old Forester’s production still takes place at Brown-Forman’s mega-distillery to the south, but the boutique plant is an important contributor.

Although the mash has to be trucked in, every other part of the bourbon production process, from fermentation to bottling, takes place on-site. A gleaming copper column still anchors the space, with activity surrounding it from the basement to the third floor. There’s even a Lilliputian cooperage, complete with open flames to char the newly made barrels (14 per day), and a cavernous modern warehouse ringed with a spiralling ramp which gives visitors a view of the maturation process that they won’t get anywhere else.

Bottles on display at Old Forester Main Street Distillery. Credit: Andrew Hyslop

It’s the warehouse which provides the Old Forester distillery, which makes only one mash bill, with its primary means of experimentation. “That [warehouse] has a standard temperature year-round, unlike our other warehouses which are heat-cycled,” says Old Forester spokesperson Chris Poynter, referring to the process of heating warehouses to accelerate maturation during the colder months. “So, we’re monitoring what that’s going to mean for the whiskey.” With Main Street’s first distillations now over four years old, discovering the answer shouldn’t take much longer.

Tiny Taste: Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style, 57.5% ABV. Part of the brand’s Whiskey Row series, which is all bottled on-site at the Main Street Distillery.
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