In the early 19th century, most distillers were farmer-distillers. They raised their own grain and made whiskey from that grain during the winter season. As the technology improved and the government taxes were imposed, the farmer-distiller became a rare occupation. It simply was not profitable for such small scale production.
Prohibition pretty much killed the idea of the farmer-distiller as it was known before 1920. In 1933, after repeal, A. Smith Bowman, a farmer in Virginia, started a distillery using the grain he grew on his farm. However, it was not the same as the 19th century farm distilleries in that he did have a column still distillery and soured grain such as malt from elsewhere. Still, this was a distillery in the spirit of the farmer-distiller. The modern farm distillery concept was born.
Today, there are several distilleries that are making the “grain-to-glass” whiskeys in the model of a farm distillery. The closest ones to Louisville are Jeptha Creed Distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky and the Starlight Distillery in Southern Indiana. They follow the model of the A. Smith Bowman distillery of 1933, but are unique in their own ways.
Jeptha Creed Distillery is a family distillery using corn grown on their farm. They focus on the Bloody Butcher heirloom variety of corn for their whiskey. They still source rye, wheat and barley malt, but do grow some on their farm. They also grow fruits to use as flavoring for their moonshine products. They have a small column still distillery and several rick warehouses. Their distiller, Joyce Nethery, has a degree in chemical engineering and worked for a chemical plant in Louisville until her husband, the farmer, talked her into opening a distillery about four years ago. She has proven herself to be a very talented distiller and will soon have whiskey old enough to sell as a bonded whiskey. Her two year old straight Bourbon on the market today is a four grain Bourbon using Bloody Butcher corn, rye, wheat, and barley malt. The four grain Bourbon is a testimony to the fact that Nethery is open to experimentation. She has also tried her hand at Pawpaw brandy that I think turned out very nicely. As a farmer-distiller, she is able to make whiskey and saves some money on grain costs by growing it on the family farm. Jeptha Creed Distillery is a distillery to watch. I am looking forward to a four year old Bourbon from the distillery and I am told she has a traditional bourbon made with rye and a wheated Bourbon in the pipeline for the four year old brands to be released.
Starlight Distillery is in southern Indiana, about 20 miles from Louisville. It is owned by the Huber family. They have been farming this same land for about 200 years. Before Prohibition, they were brandy distillers and winemakers. In the 1970s they started working to bring back this family tradition by first opening a winery, then a brandy distillery and then a whiskey distillery. Ted Huber and his sons are the current leaders of this effort. Ted Huber is not against a little experimentation and has grown several varieties of heirloom grain to use in distilling whiskey. The Huber farm is fairly large and includes vineyards, orchards with many fruits as well as grain fields. They have separate distilleries dedicated to brandy and whiskey. Their warehouses are not rick warehouses, but Huber does use the two barrel wine barrel racks that can be stacked by using a forklift. He does not believe in palletizing barrels because he believes that heads of the barrels have a huge impact on the flavor of the spirit, whether it is whiskey or brandy. The Hubers have been distilling long enough that they have four year old straight whiskeys on the market. This includes a traditional Bourbon and a rye whiskey. Both are very good products.
I am sure that there are many other farm distilleries out there making whiskey. One thing they have in common with their 19th-century forbearers is that many of them are regional in the marketing of their brands. Even though they are quite large compared to their 19th-century ancestors, they are still very small compared to Jim Beam, Jack Daniel and other major distilleries. Their future is bright and in the 22nd century, people may be writing about these distilleries because they too, became major brands and distilleries.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Pexels