How a Moonshiner's Daughter Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Craft Bourbon
The first lazy weeks of winter are holy, in a way. Punctuated by hangovers and cold toes, we take comfort in knowing that the holidays and all their associated stressors have finally abetted, leaving our heads sore and our collective reserves of Christmas cheer and New Year’s resolutioneering depleted until next year.
I may be projecting a bit, though, because despite having grown up in a fairly religious Catholic family, for me, family gatherings and all of their trappings have always distilled down to one cardinal element: booze. When I was little, I remember domestic beer flowing like wine, resulting in cherished memories like the time my whiskey-fueled dad hung his ass out the side of a pickup truck window to moon my uncle as we sped down the highway. Imbibing at family parties is a Kelly family tradition, right up there with doling out guns as gifts and complaining about taxes.
Now that I’m grown, my dad and I stop at the liquor store on the way to grandma’s house before Christmas every year -- a ritual that’s become our version of midnight Mass -- and make sure to get enough fortifications to withstand the chaos. I steer clear of hard liquor on these trips, though, because I know that as soon as we get back to his house, my dad will break out a jar of the real good stuff: moonshine.
Despite its small-batch, handmade, ultra limited character, the whiskey my dad makes has never seemed like a “craft” liquor; it’s just an open family secret. Living in Brooklyn (I know) has given me a far different perspective on that particular nomenclature, stemming back to the point when hipsters ruled the borough and every new product was branded “craft” this or “artisan” that. That early 2000s surge in bespoke, single-origin, high-priced opportunities for consumption has continued without abatement, but has since settled into a more mellow omnipresence; “craft” doesn’t signify specialness anymore, it just means that whatever you’re buying is going to cost at least 5 bucks more than it should.
I was raised on bourbon in the backwoods of rural South Jersey, and my loyalties lie to a much different kind of craft whiskey than what you’d see on a fancy liquor store’s shelves. There are a wide array of laws on the books regulating the distillation, production, and sale of alcohol; none of them are of the slightest interest to my dad, who may or may not keep a still somewhere out back and may or may not share the fruits of its labor with his gun club and, when I time my visits properly, me.
Setting aside a jar of his best apple cinnamon shine for me has become one of our rituals
My dad and I are very different people, but share a few immutable characteristics. We’ve both got ice blue eyes, red-hot tempers, a soft spot for dogs, and an enduring distaste for the federal government. This last point is especially relevant here, because while our politics are diametrically opposed and he’s the type of man who grunts I “ask too many questions” when I try to pry into his various backwoods hobbies, his moonshining habit is one that’s actually brought us closer together.
Setting aside a jar of his best apple cinnamon shine for me has become one of our rituals, one of the niceties in which we indulge before invariably sinking into the meat of our family drama and political disagreements (how a gun-toting, Reagan-worshipping, redneck libertarian ended up with an anarchist for a daughter continues to mystify him, but makes a lot of sense if you think about it). We both can get mean when we’re drinking, too, but that’s another story.
Bourbon is and has always a family affair -- if not your own, then one of the grand old Kentucky clans whose history is rooted in the bluegrass and limestone creeks at the foot of the Appalachians. On such family, the Beams, has enjoyed a particularly robust impact on the art of whiskey, so much so that a Beam has been taken a prominent distilling role at six of the seven major Kentucky distilleries, and three distinct branches of the family tree trace their roots back to one visionary ancestor, a German immigrant named Jacob Beam.
As I learned a few months back when I visited the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky, when Beam sold his first barrel of Old Jake Beam in 1795, he unwittingly founded the world’s foremost bourbon dynasty. As his lineage split, one line led to Jim Beam, the familiar barroom staple; another died out before it fully made its mark; and one, Minor Case (related to Beam via his mother’s side), set in motion a series of events that resulted in his great-grandsons, Steve and Paul, inviting me and a handful of other journalists down to take a gander at their pride and joy. The trip -- which was paid for by Limestone -- tossed me straight into the heart of the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail, which, despite being hundreds of miles from my little apartment, oddly felt a lot like home. The town of Lebanon is tiny by most standards, and the area’s rolling grassy hills and scarcely populated streets didn’t look much different from the farming communities where I attended school as a kid.
The trip also included a stop at the Independent Stave Company Cooperage, where the fire and physicality on display harkened back to an even more primeval definition of “craft,” and at the Wilderness Trail Distillery, whose fermentation lab played a crucial role in Limestone’s early days. As of 2013, it’s the newest stop on the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail (which differs from the longer-running Kentucky Bourbon Trail in its focus on smaller-scale distillers, rather than the big dogs at Jim Beam or Wild Turkey), and is still finding its footing, having recently moved its operations into a large compound outside Danville in 2016.
I thought about my dad again when we were at Wilderness Trail tasting their fresh-from-the-pot, surprisingly toothsome white dog. Our host passed around a little plastic shot glass of liquor, then ceremoniously poured what was left into a drain on the floor, joking that, if he took a step outside with it, he’d be committing a federal crime. It was true, though; as a bonded distillery, Wilderness Trail has to mind its p’s and q’s when it comes to keeping track of its booze. I could hear my dad scoffing, “What’re ya, sceered?” as we watched the shine swirl sadly down the distillery floor drain.
From afar, the craft bourbon book seemed like a canny marketing ploy.
Before I was invited down to Limestone Branch, the whole idea of craft bourbon was more or less a moot point. As much as I appreciated the artistry and care involved in bringing these small-batch beauties to life, I was generally content with Makers Mark, or my dad’s supply (and am not operating on a $15 pour kind of budget). From afar, the craft bourbon boom seemed like a canny marketing ploy -- but, when viewed up close, my perspective on it changed.
On the trail in Kentucky, “craft” is understood to mean tradition, sturdiness, family, and quality. It means scraping yeast molecules out of a hundred-year-old jug and sending them to a lab to regenerate your granddaddy’s bourbon recipe. It means family reunions with employees of six of the big seven whiskey distilleries in attendance, drawn there by blood as well as bourbon. It means producing a few barrels a week instead of thousands per day, and first names instead of employee numbers. It’s a cherished family heirloom, passed down through multiple generations and shared with those with a nose for adventure and a taste for smoke.
“Craft distillers are growing like weeds,” Patrick "Pops" Garrett, the founder of whiskey website Bourbon & Banter, told me. “There is growth across the board, [which] has allowed distilling to become something local and personal that doesn't require a trip down to KY unless one chooses.”
He was part of my tour group during this excursion, and he’d impressed me with his prodigious knowledge of the local bourbon scene (and his day job in marketing provided some unexpected added insight). “Years ago someone would have to have a strong reason to travel to KY just to visit a distillery,” he added. “But today, folks get hooked on their local distillery and decide they want to visit the main source of bourbon and wind up visiting the Bourbon Trail.”
It’s a lucrative decision for those behind it. At its heart, the trail (and its bespoke little sister) is a very successful marketing gimmick that aims to drum up interest in the state’s bourbon industry, and is sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA). There are 14 distilleries included on the main trail, and eight on the craft version; I ended up crossing streams, as it were, by nipping off to the Maker’s Mark distillery down the road for a tour when I had an hour to spare. Their gleaming facilities and gothic architecture screamed, “We know what we’re doing,” and it was a rare treat to watch the hand-dipping process behind their distinctive wax-topped bottles, but overall, it felt no different than other distillery tours I’ve been on. There was certainly no twinkly-eyed grandfatherly figure like Steve Beam urging me to dip my fingers into the fermenting tubs to taste the mash like there was at Limestone, and I’m certain that our extremely upbeat, extremely professional tour guide at Maker’s would’ve had a heart attack had I asked.
It was unsurprising, then, that the vision of craft bourbon I saw unfold at the Limestone Distillery and Wilderness Trail was different from what I saw at Maker’s Mark. The latter still took the creation of their product very seriously (and the collection of old advertisements in the bottling room were a delight), but their industrial-sized tanks and sprawling, manicured grounds were a far cry from the Beam brothers’ cozy little stone warehouse or the affable tabby patrolling Wilderness Trail’s front garden. It was that homespun aspect -- as well as the friendly welcome and complex, eclectic flavors on offer -- that really put me under their spell. As Steve Beam told me, the whole Limestone endeavor was based on a simple goal -- to claim their branch of the Beam family’s rightful place in bourbon history, and to put out a good product.
The distillery is a second career for the Beam brothers. Their grandfather, Guy Beam, was a well-known master distiller for numerous distilleries, including Yellowstone, Frankfort Distillery, Fairfield Distillery, and Old Trump (which was apparently named after the family dog, and, as Steve sheepishly assured me, bears no relation to the current occupant of the White House). During Prohibition, he moved to Canada to continue plying his trade, but once the hated anti-liquor law was repealed, the still-Kentucky-based Beams were left without a distillery of their own -- until 2010, when Steve and Paul launched Limestone Branch Distillers. They partnered with spirits giant Luxco in 2014, and released their first whiskey, a blended, high-rye recipe called Yellowstone Limited Edition, in 2015.
“In many ways, these distributed crafted distilleries have become evangelists for the mother church of bourbon,” Garrett explains, and that almost spiritual regard for the sacred art of whiskey is palpable as soon as you step into one of these smaller-scale operations. Ultimately, he sees the craft explosion as a good thing for the spirit, even if it does hit the wallet a little harder than any dedicated sipper would like. “The craft movement with their high-priced craft releases have also given the larger distillers permission to raise their prices. It is truly a case of a rising tide raises all ships.”
Whether that tide will trickle down to places like where I grew up -- in a rural township with dirt roads and one liquor store -- remains to be seen, though when I was home for Christmas last year, I noticed some sparkly new names on the whiskey section of said liquor store. My dad pointed out a snazzy, craft-influenced new blend of Wild Turkey and to my surprise, sounded more intrigued than offended (he saved his ire for the honey-flavored varieties flanking the “real whiskey”).
I offered to go in on a bottle with him, but he demurred; why spend 45 bucks when you can make your own? The sheer fact that a craft blend had piqued his interest at all was encouraging, though. If the new breed of distillers can win over a man like him, this craft bourbon thing just might have legs after all.