The Green River Distillery considers itself the “Western Gateway to Bourbon Country”. They have some legitimate reasons for saying this: They are the first large distillery to visit when traveling from the west by car and with air travel being so uncertain these days, there are a lot of people driving to Kentucky to visit distilleries. Owensboro is a large enough town that people can get a decent hotel room and use it as a base as they visit some of the other distilleries in the area. The distillery is not as busy as the distilleries in the heart of Bourbon Country, so getting in for a tour is much easier to book. Walk-in tours are still possible.
The tour starts in a large event space in a building next to the distillery itself. Tickets are purchased there and then the tour leads to a small museum of Green River memorabilia. The tour guide will discuss the history of the brand and distillery, pointing out the portrait of the founder, J.W. McCulloch, his desk and other items of interest.
The tour next steps into the distillery itself. It is a short walk across the road and up a flight of steps. The last time I was in the distillery, it was just before Charles Medley purchased it from United Distillers. It has changed some. The beautiful copper and blue column still has been replaced with a larger stainless steel column, but the original pot still doubler is still there. A tornado went through Owensboro in 1999 and damaged the roof of the building and knocked down one of the original warehouses. The original column was damaged enough by the exposure that it had to be replaced.
The tour points out the cooker and the stills before moving into the mash room. The Cyprus mash tubs that were there when I last visited have been replaced by stainless steel, but I expected as much. Charles sold them to Maker’s Mark not long after he purchased the distillery. Maker’s Mark used the wood to repair their existing tubs. The present owners have also expanded the mashing capacity of the distillery and extended the building to add more tubs.
Leaving the distillery building, the next stop is a warehouse. These are unusual as they are built with tiles instead of bricks or stone. The original buildings were built using tiles made in Owensboro, supporting the local economy. They are not heated in the winter so they age whiskey differently than the typical ironclad warehouses. The guide will discuss aging whiskey here and point out the barrel racks and the plumb bob, stating that the racks are independent of the structure and they need to be loaded properly to keep the racks from collapsing. There are modern sensors available that helps do this, but the plumb bob is a tradition in these warehouses.
The next stop is the bottling house. Barrels are dumped here and bottles are filled. They have an exhibit of the brands they bottle there and there is some discussion of filtration. You then leave the bottling house and return to the tasting room in the building where you started the tour. They believe in doing the tasting at the end of the tour so that the visitor knows more about the whiskeys they will be tasting. The tasting room is called “Forest Queen” and named for a gold mine that was purchased in return for Green River stocks by McCulloch. It was a good trade as the mine produced a lot of gold in its time.
The tasting includes the flagship Green River Bourbon, a wheated Bourbon named “Kentucky 10” and a traditional Bourbon called “Yellow Banks”. The last is named for the Yellow Banks corn grown in the area and there is an exhibit of how the corn is grown. This exhibit was created with the help of the Yellow Banks Corn Growers Association and is well worth looking at after the tasting.
The Green River Distillery is well worth visiting. It is very informative and it is a beautiful distillery. You can book a tour in advance or walk in on short notice. They also have a cocktail bar that is worth visiting after the tour. It is time well spent, so the next time you are in Owensboro, stop in for a tour.
Photos courtesy of Michael Veach