Wilderness Trail Distillery. The yeast experts turned whiskey makers.
Wilderness Trail Distillery. While visiting Dingle Distillery in Ireland about a month ago, I met two lovely American’s from Tennessee. They took interest in my whisky education program and have been some of my best followers ever since! They also are spoiled by living in the heart of American whiskey country. They have given me suggestions on new distilleries in their area. Brian specifically raved about the Wilderness Trail Distillery. I was then told by my new friend Mike at Vendome, that it was a must see distillery while in town. With so many people recommending it, I had to see it for myself.
Wilderness Trail Distillery was the vision of Shane Baker and Pat Heist. The distillery is located in Danville, Kentucky just south of Lexington and is already part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail- Craft Tour. They currently have releases of barrel aged rum and a 3 grain vodka. This is how most small distilleries begin earning income, is by producing vodkas, gins etc. I tasted their two bottlings and was impressed by both spirits, but there is another part of Pat and Shane’s story that helps to drive not only their distillery budget, but their motivation to make whiskey. They are also the founders of Fermsolutions. You got it, these two are PhD, chemists, engineers and yeast experts. These are the kind of people you want at a distillery and this is evident because many of the local brands use them. The goal was always to eventually start a distillery, but Fermsolutions was opened first in 2006. The distillery officially opened in Danville in 2012.
A bit more in regards to Fermsolutions and then I’ll get back to production. You will sometimes hear on larger distillery tours how they have yeast propagation labs on site. This comes with a very high set up cost and not many distilleries could ever afford to have their own labs. This is where Fermsolutions takes on the responsibility of yeast experimentation, yeast storage and yeast propagation. Fermsolutions operates on site with the distillery and they are the go to resource in the industry for any fermentation questions not only for whiskey, but also kombucha, wine etc. As mentioned by the still makers at Vendome, most startups focus on the distillation part of production while fermentation and mash bills are left to be dealt with later. I can imagine this has created a great partnership between Vendome and Fermsolutions. At the moment they have about 6,000 yeast strands on site. I think it’s safe to say that over the years they have developed many ideas of how to make their own perfect whiskey.
Now on to talk about the distillery. They work directly with local seed farmers to get the exact grains they want including but not limited to corn and rye. At the moment they have laid down at least 12 mash bills with different combinations of yeast and grains. They use a hammer mill and then move the grains into the cooker which can hold about 600lbs of grain at a time. After mashing in, the grains are moved to one of their four stainless steel washbacks. There is a 5th vessel called the beer well that is used to keep the distillers beer agitated before it moves on to distillation. As you can see from the picture, they have multiple column still set ups and doublers to go along with them. Before you are distracted by the beautiful, new doublers and column stills you will see their unique spirit safe. It is an engineering feat in itself and I was actually told it may hold some sort of world record. There are about 480-500 working parts in this kinetic powered spirit safe and they have named it “Walker Woodfill”.
Pat and Shane increased production quite quickly and were filling barrels faster than they could build additional warehousing. They have maxed out their original 2,000 barrel warehouse and are now completing their new, larger warehouse that will hold over 10,000 barrels. At the moment they rotate the small rickhouse from top to bottom, but do not plan on doing this for the larger one. As you might have noticed, they continue to expand and build before they release any bourbon or whiskey. It does look like next year they can release a small batch of 4 year old, but they feel as they continue testing the barrels most releases will be about 6-7 years old. They receive their barrels from Independent Stave and request a level 4 char.
There are a few additional interesting facts about not only the owners of Wilderness Trail, but also their engineering decisions. They are the first to implement a clean steam boiler system, their process is completely chemical free and in 2016 they won Manufacturer of the Year Award from the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers. And besides all of these engineering feats, they also won me over on marketing and branding. Their visitor’s center is an old 1859 farm home, split into distillery shop and visitor center. To create a welcoming, historical environment as you walk on site to a new manufacturing facility is quite impressive. They have the land to continue realizing their distillery goals and I already signed up for notifications on their first bourbon release! A quick note on their current spirits out in the market:
Blue Heron Vodka- A three grain vodka made from a bourbon mash bill. Smells like rich vanilla and I actually drank this neat. I am not a vodka person either. About 25 barrels of this are bottled and released per year.
Harvest Rum- Barrel aged rum actually made out of a local farmers excess of Sorghum. It has been aged a few months in ex-bourbon barrels. Same as the vodka- about 25 barrels of this are bottled and released per year.
I can’t thank Pat and Shane enough for their time. Unfortunately for them, they had to spend almost 3 hours with me during this tour and I really appreciate that. If you want a unique craft distillery experience, I highly recommend going to visit Wilderness Trail. Their facility offers an educational experience and view into not just “another” distillery, but the supplier side of the Kentucky bourbon world. I am excited to follow their bourbon releases and see how they continue to grow!