I have met Royce Neeley at a couple of events but did not have a chance to tour his Neeley Family Distillery before now. Rosemary and I had stopped there a few years ago but they were not open and we have been meaning to get back to visit since then. We had our chance recently when we had a Bourbon Country Institute at Japps in Cincinnati and time to stop on our way to Cincinnati. I am glad we did.
The Neeley family has a long history of moonshining in Owsley County Ky. They were also involved in a famous feud over moonshining territory amongst other things. It was not the atmosphere Royce’s father wanted to live in so he moved out of the County and started a construction business. Not that there was active feuding going on anymore, but hard feelings die hard in the mountains of Kentucky and he wanted a fresh start. He is quite successful in the construction business and was a bit apprehensive when his son, Royce, got interested in distilling. However as he put it, “Royce has a passion for making whiskey”. He supports Royce in the legal distillation business as does all of his family. It truly is a “Neeley Family Distillery” and Royce is the distiller and yeast maker.
I say “yeast maker” because Royce wanted to make whiskey the way his ancestors did it so as he tells it, he collected his own wild yeast to make his whiskey. He tells the story of how he made a small bowl of mash and sat it under some blackberry bushes until it started to ferment, collected the bowl and worked at isolating the yeast. He uses that yeast to make his whiskey. It makes really good whiskey. He does triple pot still distillation with three stainless steel pots made by Vendome with copper heads. He also has some copper introduced in the stills to make sure that he gets the sulfur out of the spirit, but he is thinking long term and stainless steel will last a lot longer than copper in the distilling process.
The mash bills he uses are his own and he includes oats in several of his whiskeys. He has cypress fermenters. He is doing sweet mash whiskey so he has to be very careful with the cleaning of those fermenters between batches but he is hoping that they will absorb some of the good flora and not the bad as he uses them. I am not sure that is a good idea but it is working for him now and I hope it continues successfully.
He states that the first distillation is mostly separating the solids from the liquids and comes off at a fairly low proof. He does not even try to separate the heads and tails in the first distillation. In the second and third distillations he does cut the heads and tails, but he states he makes a longer head cut than really is needed because he wants to make sure he is getting rid of all of the heads and their harsh flavors. He is a believer in quality over quantity and only wants to make the best whiskey. I like that philosophy.
He uses a mixture of 30 gallon and 53 gallon barrels for aging. He does not believe in heavy char and uses number 1 and number 2 chars in his barrels but also has extra toasting done to them. He has a lower barrel entry proof with some mash bills being entered at 110 and others at 105 proof. The results are that his whiskeys do not have a heavy tannic component and the nice fruity flavors from his yeast shine in his whiskey. Even at two years old, they are very flavorful whiskeys with lots of complexity. There oak tannins, but they take the back seat to vanillas, fruits and spices. I like them.
The distillery itself is in a building built by his father with a small warehouse for aging. He is building another aging warehouse on the property as well. They have a nice visitor’s center with a gift shop and bar where you can purchase bottles of their Bourbon and other products (moonshine of course) or have a cocktail made with their products. There are displays of several old stills – many of them used by the family in the moonshining year of the past as well as a display case about the family feud. They are located only about a mile from the exit off I-71 and are at the entrance to the Kentucky Speedway. I am sure the location brings many visitors in on race days.
It well worth the time to visit the Neeley Family Distillery. It has a nice family atmosphere and is full of history of the family.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller