The 2021 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which took place in Bardstown in mid-September, showcased the state’s unparalleled whiskey industry. The well-attended event provided a deep dive into the colorful history and exceptional quality of brown spirits in the Bluegrass state.
Including what’s next for American whiskey. Craft and larger emerging brands poured their products from the festival’s many booths, tasting folks on the future of bourbon and rye. We sampled everything. (It’s a tough job — someone’s gotta do it!) Subsequently, here are seven relatively newer brands that piqued our palate.
Perhaps the most eye-opening, newer distillery at the festival was Wilderness Trail. Started in 2013 in Danville, KY, this producer was founded by Shane Baker and Patrick Heist, previously known for their successful distilling consultation company, Ferm Solutions. After five years of helping distilleries around the world through the scientific nuances of making spirits, the duo decided to hoist their own still.
Good thing. Their juice, entirely self-made, is impressive. While their whiskey aged, Wilderness Trail took the route of vodka and gin. The result from this patient, in-house strategy was a properly aged product line. Quality defines the full lineup. Whiskey fans have noticed. Wilderness Trail is an increasingly trendy brand online.
Growth has followed. The distillery is now in 34 states, with plans for additional markets incrementally, as allocation expands. Wilderness Trail recently achieved 24/7 production, making 200 barrels per day. For whiskey fans wanting to visit this fast-rising distillery, it’s an hour and a half southeast of Louisville — or 50 minutes down Route 127 from Frankfort.
An Italian name may not be the first thing that comes to mind for American whiskey, but Luca Mariano belongs on your radar.
Luca Mariano is named after the son of Founder Francesco Viola. Viola previously distilled spirits (illegally) at home, on a still that had belonged to his grandfather (for whom Viola’s son is named). In 2013, Viola received his distilling license, and graduated from Moonshine University.
In the next two years, the company moved from Michigan to Kentucky, acquiring farm property in Danville. Luca Mariano began production, and laid down barrels. Their four-and-a-half-year-old Small Batch Rye and Signature Bourbon launched in 2019. Bottles of single barrel bourbon and rye hit the market the following year.
With suggested retail prices of $45-$50 for standard bottles, and $60 for single barrels, this is quality product at an attractive price. Currently the company distributes in eight states: KY, MI, TN, FL, NC, IN, OH and NJ.
This Lexington-based brand is producing their own whiskey. Launched in 2012, Bluegrass distills with both yellow and blue corn. The lineup includes Kentucky Straight High Rye Bourbon (yellow corn, and aged at least two years), Wheated Bourbon (yellow corn) and Kentucky Straight Blue Corn Bourbon.
With their Kentucky Blue Corn Bottled in Bond Bourbon slated for 2022 release, the company plans to highlight Kentucky-grown blue corn as a key differentiator. The Bottled in Bond will retail for a suggested price of $60 per 750-ml. bottle. Bluegrass distributes in five states, and produces 75 barrels per year.
This whiskey brand comes from Log Still Distillery, which sits on 300 acres of farmland in Gethsemane. Named Dant Crossing after the Dant family that founded the business, this farm facility, 15 minutes south of Bardstown, includes a 2,000-square-foot outdoor amphitheater. Future plans involve a 22,000-square-foot event venue, restaurant, bar, train depot, 5,000-square foot tasting space and 32 rentable rooms across multiple bed and breakfasts. The boom in whiskey tourism has just begun.
Monk’s Road currently sells sourced juice. They will start producing their own distillate in 2022, with a goal of 15,000-17,000 barrels laid down yearly. The brand distributes only in Kentucky right now, but will add Tennessee, Indiana and Georgia in 2022. Within five years, the company wants to be in 25 total states.
Founder Dave Schmier has sourced Bardstown whiskey since 2009. This early innovator — a co-founder of Redemption Rye — now bottles brands like Tumblin’ Dice, Deadwood and The Senator.
Recently, Schmier received his Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) permit for Kentucky. “We finally have our own roots here in Bardstown,” he says. Tightlipped about his future production plans, Schmier winks as he adds, “We’ll do more of what people like.”
Through his company, Proof and Wood, Schmier’s wide array of spirits is available in 26 states.
This brand is one of the producers who breaks up staves and then ages those wooden chunks in the whiskey, rather than the other way around. They launched in 2015 as a vodka company. Broken Barrel currently sources from Green River Distilling Co., finishing this aged whiskey with the wooden chunks.
Why do brands do this? The result, genuinely, is a rich flavor. And the process is less expensive. Broken Barrel’s standard bottles retail for $35, while the cask strength is only $45.
The brand does not merely list mash bills on its labels. Each bottle also shows its “oak bill,” a list of the different barrel components that went into the whiskey. Bottles contain a blend of woods, such as ex-bourbon, new French oak and sherry cask. Future experimentations include peach brandy, Cognac, stout and rum barrels.
These are flavorful whiskeys at an affordable price. Broken Barrel, which recently underwent a branding overhaul, is in 35 states.
This brand from the 1980s launched anew in 2017. Now a farm distillery in Bardstown, Preservation produces batches one to three barrels at a time, with seven to eight barrels laid down per day. They are about to total 6,000 total barrels in four years. You can buy Preservation in 12 states (and growing).
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent pieces, 9 Alcohol Trends in 2021-22 and When Will the Alcohol Packaging Shortage End?