Distillery Focus

Old School Kentucky

They make craft whiskey don't they?
By Fred Minnick
Have you ever wondered what a Kentucky distillery looked like when they were farm-distilleries? They operated smallish stills, farmed soya beans and corn, slopped hogs with distiller's mash and butchered their own chickens. Welcome to the MB Roland distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky.

Minus the hogs and decapitated chickens, MB Roland looks, feels and even smells like an old school farmer-distillery. Cut into the picturesque green landscape of Western Kentucky and a few miles from the 101st Airborne Division's home, Fort Campbell, the MB Roland Distillery acquired a former Amish farm to build a dream.

"The Amish are supposed to be known for their incredible craftsmanship, but that wasn't my experience. I don't think we found a single straight board in any of the buildings," says Paul Tomaszewski, co-owner with his wife Merry Beth Roland, whom the distillery is named after.

Tomaszewski and crew installed electricity, replaced the dirt floors with concrete, stabilised old buildings and opened in 2009, becoming Christian County's first distillery since Prohibition. The area was never a powerhouse distillery county, but it enjoyed a few decent-sized distilleries in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to tax records, Lanier & Haskins distillery near Crofton, Kentucky, produced 200 barrels in 1910, making it the county's largest distillery on record. (Who knows what the non-taxpaying distilleries were producing!)

MB Roland currently has the capacity to produce one barrel a day. When it reaches maximum capacity, it will become Christian County's all-time leading (legal) whiskey producer.

Not bad for a concept born out of absolute boredom.

The Idea of MB Roland

When Tomaszewski, a former US Army Infantry officer and West Point graduate, returned from his first Iraq War deployment in 2004, he was stuck at Fort Lewis, Washington, without orders. "The Army literally forgot about me for a couple weeks," he says.

The Louisiana native decided to visit his brother stationed in Okinawa, Japan. It was on this trip he discovered his passion for whiskey. "They had all this incredible whiskey duty free. I don't know how, but it was 50 per cent cheaper than here," Tomaszewski said.

He tasted and fell in love with whiskey. Tomaszewski grew up a few miles from the Abita Brewery and began to wonder about a craft whiskey distillery. The dream was born.

Nine months later, he's redeployed to Iraq. When he's close to coming home and winding down his outfit's operations, Tomaszewski is in a quiet room at forward opperating base Falcon in Baghdad. For once, no mortars exploding, no fire fights or soldiers finding ways to interrupt his quiet time. He was alone with his thoughts, researching this newfound dream and discovering craft whiskey in places like Colorado, Texas and New York.

When he returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he met up with this then fiancé, Merry Beth, and created a plan to start a distillery in Christian County.

"I remember driving from Kentucky to New York and visited about nine craft distilleries," he says. "Today, there are more than 20 on that same route." The couple married in March 2007, bought the farm in 2008 and were planning for this dream, but the U. S. housing market crash instigated a troubled economy in the midst of Tomaszewski processing out of the military.

The couple started implementing their dream a few years earlier than expected out of necessity, and "we wasted a lot of money," Tomaszewski says. "But as 'craft' goes, we were it." The couple have not look back since.

They started with quality in mind, establishing contracts with white corn producers ten miles from the distillery and purchasing wine grade American white oak barrels double the cost of typical whiskey barrels. They fired up their small 100 gallon copper still in 2009 and never looked back.

While the still eventually thinned out and crumpled up like a soda can, the Tomaszewskis's MB Roland, loyal staff and a dozen former Amish farm cats have become Kentucky's bourbon darling, intriguing all those who taste their whiskeys.

Hayloft of the Future

MB Roland's barrel warehouse is the Amish farm's former hayloft with two openings - a back door with no steps and a sizeable garage-like door. The wind provides just enough breeze to keep the 5 , 25 and 53-gallon barrels breathing and creates a circulation trap. Unfortunately, the 5 gallon barrels lose about 25 per cent to evaporation in the hayloft, but the smooth larger barrels stand up well. That's largely because the wine grade barrels' staves were air dried (seasoned) for two years, leaching out the unwanted tannins and tightening the wood grains. The barrels have an extra hoop to keep them tight and the exterior is smoothed up like a piece of well-built Amish furniture.

MB Roland's main mashbill is 75 per cent corn, 15 per cent rye and 10 per cent malt Bourbon. The double distilled whiskey comes off the 600 gallon pot still at 110 proof and goes straight into the barrel. They bottle unchilled-filtered whiskey at barrel proof.

The attention to detail in the wood, food grade white corn, controlled open fermentation and lack of stripping of the natural vegetable oils brings forth a Bourbon that doesn't pack a burnt vanilla character found in many American craft whiskeys. Instead, MB Roland's Bourbon offers a natural essence of cream corn, coconut, berries and a slight cinnamon spice finish.

But there's one product they make that could become a beloved American whiskey for smoke lovers. Near tobacco dark fired barns, MB Roland uses the traditional smoking process called 'dark firing' on its own white corn with tobacco leaves. For the Kentucky Black Patch Whiskey, dark fired corn makes up one third of the mash. After it's distilled, the spirit is filled inside third or fourth used barrels. By ageing in used barrels, the distillery keeps the smoky distillate from being filtered out by freshly charred wood.

"This process is so unique, because the smoked corn is not bought," Merry Beth says.