You don’t just get named Whisky Advocate’s number one craft Rye Whisky in the world for nothin’. No, it’d probably take some ingenuity, innovation and a distilled Spirits plant number that’s older than Jim Beam itself.
Oh, and one more thing: a rare Whiskey technique that’s putting the big boys on notice…
We’re talking about none other than Kentucky Peerless, a distilling operation straight out of Louisville, Kentucky. They’re producing the type of mind-blowing juice that gets Fred Minnick’s attention. And if it’s got Fred’s attention, you can bet it has ours.
So we sat down with head distiller Caleb Kilburn and director of marketing Cordell Lawrence for an inside look at this family-owned, grain-to-bottle operation.
Kentucky Peerless has a very rich history. Can you tell us a bit more about that?Cordell: Peerless is the resurrection of a pre-Prohibition brand that was founded in 1889 by a gentleman named Henry Craver. It operated right up until 1917, when Prohibition began. It then shut down and resold its equipment to a company called United Distillers in Canada.
It was available as medicine during Prohibition from 1919 until 1933. At the end of Prohibition, our founder, Henry Craver, passed away. With that, so did the brand. It wasn't resurrected until 2015 by fourth and fifth generation family members Corky and Carson Taylor, here in Louisville, Kentucky. We’re still operating under the original distilled Spirits plant number of KY-50, DSP-KY-50. That's a lower and older number than Jim Beam, which is 230. Buffalo Trace is 113, just to kind of put it into context.
We're making everything grain to bottle and are a family-owned and operated distillery. The distillery is set up in a trust to never be sold, so we're not going to be sold to a large conglomerate.
Working with a distillery that has so much history and takes the tradition of distilling very seriously, innovating might prove difficult. How do you continue to keep your craft interesting and move forward while still honoring the traditions that you inherited?Caleb: The best piece of know-how that was carried over from the original Peerless Distilling Company was the dedication to quality above all else. They didn't have a specific recipe that was passed down through the years. So when I set out to figure out what procedures I wanted to employ here at Peerless, there were no handcuffs.
One of our most groundbreaking innovations is our sweet mash. When I have a sweet mash, I can really focus more on the grains, the florals and some of those sweeter notes.
When you talk about other distilleries that’ve been running since Prohibition, they're really handcuffed in the amount of innovation that they can employ because their customers have a very specific flavor profile that they purchase and they have to maintain that. But at Peerless, I was able to go through and cherry-pick ideas that I felt were going make the best product imaginable.
One of our most groundbreaking innovations is our sweet mash. When you talk about a sweet mash, you start with fresh corn, fresh rye, fresh barley and fresh yeast—all ingredients that have never been used before. And the mash that results from it is sweet and floral. But it's also at risk of contamination if you don't have the utmost levels of sanitation. And if you're talking about a distillery 100 years ago, they didn't understand enough about microbiology to be able to carry out this process. The results would’ve spoiled on them. Now, we can steam-sterilize our vessels, the piping, the pumps and every piece of the puzzle.
The reason this is important is it allows me to pull off a lot of fresh grains, florals, and a lot of beautiful notes from the distillate that would otherwise be tainted by a sour mash. When I distill a sour mash, it's going to have a gritty taste to it. But when I have a sweet mash, I can really focus more on the grains, the florals and some of those sweeter notes.
Also, we go into the barrel at a very low proof. Prior to the 1960s, the law said you had to go into the barrel at about 110 proof because that was deemed to make a full-flavored, robust Whiskey.
We’ve revived the pre-1960s way here at Peerless. We put it in the barrel at a palatable proof of 107, we mature it and at the end of aging, we don’t add a bit of water to it.
And it was only in the '60s, when we were struggling with the fall of Bourbon and the rise of neutral Spirits, the industry had to find a way to be more cost-competitive. They needed to make a lighter-flavored, cheaper product. The way they established that was by raising the barrel-entry proof, because after maturation, you could add water to it to bring it back down to the same proof. So on the front end you think, "okay, it's the same proof at the end of the day," but what actually happens is that the barrel's flavors and characteristics—the caramels, the oaks, the chocolate, the earthy compounds—become diluted.
We’ve revived the pre-1960s way here at Peerless. We put it in the barrel at a palatable proof of 107, we mature it and at the end of aging, we don’t add a bit of water to it. The same way that I go out and taste it is how our consumers taste it. It's kind of a fusion. It's modern execution with old-school artisanry.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Caleb: Okay. If we are talking in terms of a whiskey theme, I will say time travel. That way, I can look ahead and immediately see the cause-and-effects of my tinkerings rather than waiting two, three, or four years to see how they benefit Peerless. I can go ahead and get some of the immediate validation and figure things out.
Cordell: Mine would be x-ray vision so I could see inside our barrels and witness the activity and science that's happening, I think that would be fascinating.
2. How would you explain Kentucky Peerless in three words?
Cordell: Mine would be unhurried, uncompromised and unadulterated.
Caleb: I'm gonna say peerless, quality and patience.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
Caleb: I have a very eclectic palette when it comes to music. I can flip on anything on the radio and I'll listen to it and be happy. As far as my favorite drink, you gotta respect a good, neat pour of Kentucky Peerless.
Cordell: My drink of choice would be a sazerac cocktail with Peerless Rye Whiskey. It's my favorite cocktail.
Cordell: You know, I have eclectic music tastes, but I really like the '60s. Like, classic rock—The Rolling Stones in particular.
Caleb: I took you for a Tupac, man.
Cordell: Yeah. I listen to Tupac, too. I listen to a lot of music. But yeah, I definitely like a throwback genre like classic rock.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
Cordell: Cotton candy.
Caleb: One of those never-ending Gobstoppers from Willy Wonka.
Cordell: Yeah, exactly. It just keeps going.
Flaviar: But what would you drink those with?
Cordell: Gosh, you know I would say pre-prohibition Peerless Whiskey.
Caleb: Back when you couldn't find it?
Cordell: Yeah, because you can't find it. But if you could, in an ideal world, that would be a nice last meal. And I think it would pair well with maybe like a kobe beef or wagyu steak, something kind of interesting and rare.
Caleb: For me, I'd have to have some home cooking. Basically what my grandmother would cook all the time when I was little—a combination of soup beans and we called it kraut weenies. It was just sauerkraut with some sausage in it, fried potatoes and whatever protein she wanted to cook.
5. Assuming Kentucky Peerless is your favorite, what's your second favorite Whiskey?
Caleb: I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to Whiskey. I don't like to get in a rut and say, "this is gonna be my house pour," or "this is what I'm gonna drink when I do drink." I like to really work my way through individual characteristics from all around the flavor wheel and see what every distillery is able to do. That's how I learned my craft. It was by tasting, learning and understanding the nuances of every distillery and how they’ve showcased it in their product. So for me, I love single-barrel expressions from different distilleries because that's when their guard is almost let down. You're no longer tasting the standard, the flavor, the uniformity of a distillery, you're actually able to kind of see behind the curtain and experience the raw pieces that go into making their product.
Cordell: And I tend to gravitate to barrel-proof expressions of other products. I always like to experiment with those and see how I can push my palate. Especially with particular brands such as William Larue Weller, Stagg Jr. and George T. Stagg, as well as a lot of the Parker Beam products from Heaven Hill. That tends to be my M.O, or what I go for—things that are just challenging and very unorthodox.
Caleb: You can always talk about the fresh limestone water, the access to grains and the wonderful climate, but one resource that is often overlooked is knowledge. When you look at the deep history and heritage of Whiskey, what it means to the community, and multiple generations' worth of knowledge summating in one person's ability to distill, I mean, that is the real underrated resource that's available here in Kentucky— knowledge about how to make the product.
Why do you think Kentucky is such a great place to make Bourbon?
Cordell: And I think what Caleb said is really important. It’s that respect and reverence for tradition, but also being willing and able to innovate as much as possible.
Tell us a bit about your products and their flavor profiles.Caleb: The product that we have on the market right now is a Kentucky Straight Rye. Because we've only been distilling for roughly three-and-a-half years, the Whiskey, on the Bourbon side of things, isn’t quite mature yet so it remains in barrels. Now on the Rye side, we're able to develop some really nice, full and robust flavors because as a grain, rye matures a lot quicker than corn.
The more time you spend with it, the more you’ll discover nuanced and rare notes.
We've been deemed a Bourbon drinker's Rye. It's going to start with a very sweet kind of caramel front palate, then it’s going to have a few bursts of citrus and reduced cherry, then it's going to roll through cinnamon. Then, late in the palate, it’s going to shift to a dark chocolate, featuring some earthy notes from time to time, like tobacco or hay. As it goes into the finish, a lot of that earth from the last little bit of the tasting is going to continue to roll into a long finish with sweet oak and cocoa characteristics and a few dots of floral notes coming out through the end. It's a really complex Rye.
Cordell: Yeah, I think the term I would use for that is layered complexity. The more time you spend with it, the more you’ll discover nuanced and rare notes.
If a friend of yours asked to pair one of your products with the perfect meal, what would you recommend?Caleb: Well, we found that the Rye, given that it is of barrel-strength, is a rather strong and robust Spirit. It pairs well with foods that are typically a little bit more fatty and earthy as far as their characteristics.
Cordell: Beef tenderloin is one.
Caleb: I was gonna say beef.
Cordell: Food with a rich and bold flavor that can pair with the Whiskey and not overpower it, but rather pull out some of the complexity of it. But we've had dinners where it's been paired with teriyaki salmon and really interesting seafood dishes. Like, seared scallops. These are things you normally wouldn't associate with the ability to be paired with fine Whiskey.
Caleb: Pork belly.
Cordell: Pork belly as well.
Caleb: So if you want to feature it in a dessert, you have the caramels, vanillas and baking spices incorporated in it. But even some of the sweet oaks and some of those darker fruit characteristics will also sow through wonderfully.
Cordell: But also nut-focused desserts. You know, pecan pie.
Cordell: Or praline pie, or race day pie or derby pie. It’s very versatile on the dessert side as well.
What does the future hold for Peerless?Caleb: Our focus is on continually getting better and continually proving and pushing ourselves. We're not only going to keep all of our current promises of quality, we're going to continue to raise the bar.
As far as different products, Bourbon's the big thing in our crosshairs—it's what we're chasing. But we're chasing it very patiently. We're not letting an artificial date, or a particular point on the calendar determine when we release our Whiskey. It’s gonna be strictly based on when I find enough barrels to come up with a batch that I can truly stand behind. That's when Bourbon will become available. Until then, we're going to remain waiting.