Meet Emma Kahn, head distiller at Luckenbach Road in Fredericksburg, Texas

Meet Emma Kahn, head distiller at Luckenbach Road in Fredericksburg, Texas

Maggie Kimberl speaks with Emma Kahn, aka The Barrel Baroness

Interview | 24 Jun 2022 | Issue 184 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Luckenbach Road has been contract-distilling whiskey based on founder Stewart Skloss’ family recipe for some time now, while the distillery is being built on a campus that will eventually house a hotel, cabins, a winery, shops, and more. Though the site’s stills aren’t quite ready, operations including blending and bottling are taking place inside shipping-container ‘offices’ under the supervision of newly minted head distiller Emma Kahn.

Kahn spent the last several years at Garrison Brothers in Hye, Texas, while also serving as Texas Branch co-ambassador for Bourbon Women. She has worked in sales, as a tour guide, in retail, and in production in the whiskey industry and is definitely now ready for the challenge of building a new distillery operation.

“When you work in a distillery for years, you understand as you’re going through all the motions, okay, I’ve got to open this valve, I’ve got to get to this pump, I’ve got to make sure this switch is flipped,” Kahn says. “But then from the side of actually setting it up, it’s like, okay, where does the valve need to go? What kind of valve does it need to be? What kind of pump do we need to have there? How long does our fermentation need to be if we don’t want to work on the weekends? What do I need to do to make my fermentation last so that it’s still going by the time that we get back?” The list goes on.
Kahn explains that it’s all these little things that she “never really thought about” that are now key to decisions that she need to make quickly as the distillery project advances. “I’m really grateful that I have some experience,” she continues. “It’s a little easier for me to think through that stuff, to pull on my own experiences, but I’ve had to flip everything on its head and think about it in a completely different way so I can then actually implement it.”

Kahn has a BA in philosophy and religious studies and studied abroad in Scotland, before volunteering back home in Texas after graduation. However, she made the most of her time in Scotland by learning to love Scotch whisky along the way.
“While I finished my degree at the University of Edinburgh, I took bus tours everywhere because they were cheap, and I got to have a whole different inside look into Scotland,” says Kahn. A two-week tour through the Highlands and the Isle of Skye with her mother included many stops at distilleries, where Kahn remembers clearly her first sip of Scotch.
“I absolutely hated it – burning rubber and tyres – and I just didn’t get how something could taste like that, but come from somewhere so beautiful.” Thankfully, the tour guide noticed that Kahn was struggling and led her through the process of how to properly enjoy whisky. “I was in this 300-year-old pub on the Isle of Skye, eating Haggis, surrounded by men in kilts, bagpipes playing, and I was just like, ‘this is it for me.’ ”

While volunteering in the public school system, Kahn took a part-time job working in the retail shop in a North Dallas distillery. Initially starting in retail, selling bottles and t-shirts, she was offered the chance to be a tour guide after it was recognised that she engaged well with visitors.

“I ended up running their tour program after my year of service, for about a year and a half, and then I was scooped up by Garrison Brothers,” she recalls. “I was at Garrison for four and a half years and they let me follow wherever my heart wanted to go. I started as a tour guide and then I worked my way into production, where I spent the majority of my time cooking mash, distilling and learning.”

After discovering her passion for fermentation, Kahn did a lot of work in the fermentation room, before moving into sales in January of 2020. But the universe obviously had different plans. Sales ended up not being Kahn’s passion, and she longed to get back into the production side of the business.

A colleague had been working for a new start-up, Luckenbach Road, and asked her to jump ship and join the team. That colleague left shortly after Kahn came on board, which led to her eventual promotion to head distiller. “Stewart [Skloss] and I sat down, and he told me, ‘I fully believe that you can do this,’ ” says Kahn. “[He said] ‘I know on paper, you might not have as much experience as someone that’s been distilling for 20 years, but I believe that we can get you there.”

Since then, Skloss has been focused on making sure that Kahn has access to all the education that she needs to supplement her experience, including the distillery operations course at Moonshine University. “I’m also doing a couple of classes on leadership next month at the University of Texas,” Kahn adds. “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to literally be part of building a distillery from the ground up.”

When Kahn first got into whiskey, while working at that small North Dallas distillery, she was just 22 years old. It was around that time that one of her mentors sat her down to share some advice. “They said, ‘Look, you’re going to have a really hard time in this industry because you’re young and because you’re a woman, so you need to make sure that you know 10 times as much as anyone that’s gonna walk through that door,” Kahn recalls. “Should it be that way? No. But unfortunately, my experience has proven that, time and time again, that’s what I needed to do. I’ve armed myself with every certification that I could get my hands on – not only because of the title to back up my name, but also because I was passionate about it and I loved learning about whiskey, about the process, the history, and the culture around it. All of it.”

Today, Kahn has completed the Certified Specialist of Spirits program, the Executive Bourbon Steward program, and she’s a level one whiskey master. She’s also gone through two levels of the whiskey sommelier program at the Wizard Academy. “It has not only given me confidence in myself that I can sit at the table here, but it has also allowed me to arm myself with as much information as I can, while thoroughly enjoying it and just being a part of an industry that I love.”
For now, Kahn is making the most of running a whiskey brand and is excited for the distillery that's planned to be completed in Q1 of 2023. She has plans to work with heirloom grains grown on Skloss’ family farm and hopes to someday branch out from the Skloss family mash bill of 99 per cent corn, 1 per cent malted barley. The Texas whiskey community has been very supportive, Kahn says, and she speaks to many industry people, including friends from Garrison Brothers and Ironroot Republic’s Marcia Likarish, on a regular basis.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It doesn’t come across people’s paths sometimes ever, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. For it to come across so early in my career was initially shocking, but I have such a wonderful team of people behind me that it has been not only empowering but also very humbling.”
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