With the tasting wrapped up, we then proceeded into the distillery via the barrel area. The components of Bluegrass Distilling are essentially all contained within one large room. From our vantage point just inside the barrel area entrance, we could see the cooker (mash tun) and both pot stills. Steve pointed out that only 10% of Blue Grass Distillers' barrels were aging onsite. Due to space limitations, the remaining barrels make their home in Danville, KY where Bluegrass leases space at the Wilderness Trail Distillery. With space a constant issue, Steve also shared that in fact, Bluegrass Distillers would be relocating to Midway, KY later in the year. Some time ago the company had purchased a historic 62 acre property in Midway. They are currently building a new distillery on it and are renovating the pre-existing historic homestead to be used as the visitor center.
From the barrel area we made our way past the large sacks of milled grain and over to the cooker area. Because of space, Bluegrass has its grain milled and bagged by Woodford Feed. Steve then explained the unusual cooker. We learned that it originally began its life as a large mixer for a bakery in California. The folks at Bluegrass Distillers ingeniously converted it into a mash tun. Bread (at least cornbread) and bourbon have a lot in common, so it makes perfect sense. The cooker is used to heat the grains to different temperatures allowing for various enzymatic reactions to occur which ultimately convert the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars.
Once the mash is complete, it is cooled and then transferred to large plastic fermenters. When the appropriate temperature is reached, the yeast is then added. The fermenters are housed in a small separate room kept at 78 degrees Fahrenheit which allows the yeast to do its work for 3-6 days. Then it is off to the still.
The original 250 gallon copper pot still used at Bluegrass Distillers was crafted in Portugal by Castelo de Paiva. Nathan, our tour guide in March 2020, explained that it was originally wood fired. However, this was not exactly a practical method for the small enclosed space of the distillery and so the copper still was converted to utilize steam. Distillation at Bluegrass Distillers takes place in two stages. First, the contents of a single fermenter are distilled with the heads, hearts, and tails separated based on taste. The hearts and tails are then stored in a large plastic tub called ST2. Because Bluegrass is a very small distillery, it takes several fermenters to fill the ST2. Once full, the second stage begins. This “low wine” will be distilled a second time resulting in a “high wine” which then will be ready for barreling.
With demand being high and production needs growing, in July 2021, Bluegrass Distillers added a second still. In keeping with their tradition of Portuguese pot stills, this new still was obtained from another Portuguese alembic still maker, Coppercrafts.
After barreling, it is time for the whiskey to age. The barrels aged onsite are stored standing on their ends to save space, rather than on their sides in “racks” or “ricks" as in many other distilleries. Interestingly, when Bluegrass Distillers initially began production in 2013, it was illegal to store barrels on-site, but the law has since changed.
After the bourbon has aged to its maturity, the barrels are dumped and bottled on site. The bottling area is at the opposite end of the distillery from the barrel room. The bottle filler can fill 5 bottles at a time. The entire process, from filling to corking to labeling, is all done by hand.
With our tour of the production area complete, we ended our visit in the gift shop. Although space is at a premium at Bluegrass Distillers, the visitor center and gift shop had a surprising amount of offerings. Cocktails were available for purchase and could be enjoyed at the micro-sized bar inside the gift shop. There is also space to enjoy drinks out in front of the distillery where used bourbon barrels now find a new purpose. Some limited drink offerings are sold outside as well. Bottle sales are permitted, and the distillery also offers a nice selection of its own swag. Don't miss their bourbon barreled maple syrup and bourbon barreled honey! Samples are free, but will certainly leave your wallet a little lighter!
It's worth a visit to Bluegrass Distillers while they are in their original home, since its days are numbered. The plan is for the new distillery in Midway, KY to have a large continuous column still, so things are about to get completely different. You'll be kicking yourself if you miss your opportunity to see this cool craft distillery before it makes its transformation! Go and check them out today!