Distillery Focus

Peerless in Kentucky

Distillery restarts after nearly 100 years
By Liza Weisstuch
Kentucky Peerless, a distillery located about a block off a main drag in Louisville, has an old-world museum-like quality about it, despite only filling its first barrel in March 2015. When Corky Taylor, the owner, shows you around, he takes you through a small 'family room' on the way to the production facility. There are photos of Corky's ancestors - his grandfather, Henry Kraver and his father, Roy Taylor Sr. There are oversized sepia-toned images of a medicinal license and an apothecary bottle. In February, when I met Corky at his distillery, we stood in that modest room and he explained Roy fought in World War II, then became General George Patton's chief aid in 1943. He was also a banker and served on several companies' boards and owned Chicago's famous Palmer House.

And then, after all that excitement and prestige, he returned to his hometown of Henderson, Kentucky and started distilling. In 1889, he was producing eight barrels a day. By 1891, the output skyrocketed to 200 barrels a day. Today, Henry's great grandson is turning out 12 barrels a day, six days a week. (The first one was filled on 4 March, 2015. There are presently 1,504 barrels ageing in the building). And if past is a precursor, he's on a pretty good trajectory.

American craft distilleries are a dime a dozen these days. Even Margie A S Lehrman, Executive Director of the American Craft Spirits Association, said at the Whiskies and Spirits Conference in New York in February that nobody is absolutely certain how many small, independent distilleries are operating in the United States, but it's estimated to be between 800 and 900, with many more in the works. Since the industry blasted off, however, scandal and bad behaviour have surfaced. If you read this magazine regularly, you are likely to know that some operations have sourced whiskey and claimed it their own; some have appropriated fiction for their heritage. Corky has evidence - and lots of it - that his whiskey bears the burden of proof, so to speak.

The strongest hard evidence? The fact that Peerless's Distilled Spirits Plant number is 50. (DSP is a legal identification assigned by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the American government body that oversees the alcohol industry.) The numbers are given out chronologically over time. If Corky was to apply for a new number when he opened the distillery like the hundreds of other start-ups today, it would be over No. 23,000. Jim Beam is No. 230.

Transparency, a term regularly bandied about in the spirits industry, sometimes with exasperation, is the driving force here. When you walk into the cavernous, freshly gut-renovated warehouse space, a 120 years old building originally used as a tobacco warehouse then as a burlap bag-maker's headquarters, the first thing you lay eyes on are vertical windows to the still room and the 26 feet length of copper, with liquid gurgling away inside. There are 19 windows on the still and the doubler features a sight glass. Corky's son Carson Taylor, who has a history in construction and woodworking, designed the place.

"I wanted a true one-on-one experience with the distillery. I want everything open to the public," Carson said. "I really wanted to show off - from looking into the fermenters to the barrels ageing and all under one roof."

On a daily basis, you can also watch a tanker trunk pulling up to the building to take away the spent grain. They fill a semi with 6,600 pounds of grain every production day; the grain feeds 1,600 heads of cattle and 600 buffalo.

But despite the rich, generations-old legacy and the vintage vibe that lingers in the air like the angels' share, the family is not trying to recreate old-world methods.

"We computerised everything - the cooker, fermenter, still - because we want everything consistent. We've had visitors here from Vietnam, Germany, Scotland, and dozens of other countries, to check out how our grain operation works," he said, pointing out the separate vessels for barley, rye and corn. With the flip of a switch, the system measures out the grain combo for the next mash. "We cook 3,300 pounds of grain twice a day. You can pull a lever to combine the grains and then walk away. We might be off ¼ pound, but not really. There are no mistakes because it's all auto-pull."

With a sense of determined pride, Corky pointed out a 90 ton chiller, a 90 horsepower boiler and 1,000 gallon fermenter. The mash goes in at 150° F (66°C), and the chilling coil takes it to 81° F (27°C) for fermentation. "Just like that. I don't care about the temperature outside. We hold everything at 81°C all year long."

Right now, in the interest of cash flow, Peerless is producing seven varieties of Lucky Moonshine, low-proof, intensely flavoured mixers. In a move that struck me as quite savvy marketing-wise, Corky opted not to make an old-school new make, the stuff that typically gets branded as 'moonshine.' Instead, he smarted up to the runaway success of Fireball, the cinnamon-flavoured product that's much derided by whisky connoisseurs but seems as ubiquitous as Budweiser. The bottles, like the ones that will be used for the whiskey, feature 'Made in the USA' in large raised letters.

As of March, there were 1,300 barrels ageing on the premises. Defying convention, Corky explained that they put their spirit into the barrel at 107 proof, which preserves flavour in the long run. The rye will be a two years old straight whiskey called Peerless Rye. The Peerless Bourbon will be a four years old bottled and bond product.

There's little doubt the family is doing its ancestors proud.