Position: Head Distiller of Kentucky Peerless Distilling
Unlike McCall and the Elliott-Berrys, Caleb Kilburn doesn’t come from an industry family. Having grown up on a dairy farm in Kentucky, he knew no one in distilling and didn’t have any connections. While studying chemistry at Morehead State University, Kilburn began shadowing distillers and cookers, and pestering tour guides for any information about the business. He eventually forced his way into Moonshine University, the teaching arm of the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, where he could learn from master distillers directly. “Pretty much everyone who went through that [program] were already affiliated with a distillery, or were distillers in training, or were new employees,” Kilburn says. “I was the only one to graduate freelance.”
A quick bond with his teacher, Pete Kamer (a veteran of Barton Distillery), led to an apprenticeship of sorts, which was followed by more tutoring from Rob Sherman (president of Vendome Copper & Brass Works and a vendor for Moonshine U.) and from Randy Allender, a retired Jim Beam distiller-turned-consultant. Kilburn explains that this trio of mentors taught him the ins and outs of the industry, from distilling best practices and management to manufacturing and engineering of new distilling systems. They also gave him access to fellow distillers across the region, whom he could study to learn a wide range of philosophies and methods.
His mentors then connected him with Peerless Distillery founders Corky and Carson Taylor. The Taylors needed someone with Kilburn’s broad experience, but the young hopeful distiller didn’t jump right into distilling. He started at the bottom, sawing lumber for construction. When Kamer just happened to come in to consult on building the distillery’s mechanical systems, Kilburn was there to help—and eventually take over construction of the site’s boilers and chillers. Kamer’s accidental consult led to Sherman’s sudden appearance as a consult on the instillation of distilling equipment. Once again, Kilburn was perfectly positioned to take over construction, building out the cooker, fermenters, beer well, and entire distillation system. “What I’ve come to find out long after the fact,” Kilburn says, “my mentors had no intention of just sending me to any distillery. They played matchmaker.” Kilburn’s growth within Peerless was plotted from the beginning by his mentors behind the scenes. He would go on to spearhead the distillery’s computer automation system and program it himself after a 2-hour course on the software (and a number of calls to tech support).
As Kilburn prepared for his final semester of college, the Taylors asked him to become head distiller, so he worked double duty as distiller and student. “I would go to school Monday through Thursday, and then Friday and Saturday I would be on-site in Louisville with the contractors,” he explains. “I had cleared it with all my professors. They knew that it didn’t matter if I was in the middle of the final exam to end all final exams, if I got a call from a contractor, I had to step out and take it.”
Yet, Kilburn doesn’t think someone at his age holding his position is all that strange. “I like to consider myself an old soul,” he jokes. Instead, he says he differs from other distillers more in terms of the route he took to his position. Typically, distillers move up from within a company, joining when they’re young and assuming more duties as elder distillers retire. “Generally you have someone who has learned how to do the job one way, who has learned one set of philosophies, and they’re in a position where success for them is to continue exactly what your predecessor did,” he explains.
Kilburn credits his unorthodox entry into the industry for his quick mastery. “The unique thing for me is I’ve been able to study under multiple people and cherry pick the practices and philosophies of each that I feel go into making the best product. I like the way this distillery makes their cuts, or the way that distillery distills at a low proof, or I may like the char that this distillery uses,” he says. “Because I was at a new startup distillery, I was able to really craft Peerless’ product line in the image of my choosing. I was able to innovate and start from scratch.”