Bourbon is booming. It’s about time, isn’t it? Being from Kentucky, the growing press coverage of and intense interest in our state’s greatest gift to the world seems almost like old news. This is part of the fiber of our bluegrass, the distinctive cloth of our home. And with this tradition of distillation comes a storied history, families who have built and passed the trade of bourbon making down generation after generation. Prohibition put an unfortunate end to all too many of these lineages, but time heals all wounds, and when something is in your blood, it takes far more than a ban on liquor to extinguish the flames of a family legacy. Such is the case with Corky and Carson Taylor, fourth and fifth generation members of the Peerless Distilling family.
Purchased in 1889 by Henry Kraver, Carson’s great-great-grandfather, Peerless Distilling was originally located in Henderson. Under Henry’s watch, Peerless grew to produce more than 10,000 barrels per year and would have likely continued to prosper if it weren’t for the war abroad and the war against liquor that befell our country in the early 1900s. Carson and his father, Corky, made the determination to rebuild their family’s legacy in Louisville, selecting an old brick warehouse on the corner of 10th and Main Street as the new home for Peerless. I arrived for my tour of Peerless on a rainy day, driving straight over the great Ninth Street divide, thinking to myself how wonderful it is to see new businesses breaking down this invisible wall. Upon entry, the column still is the first thing I see, visible through a chain of windows, the still stretching tall to the ceiling beyond, a formidable tower of sleek copper crafted by Kentuckians on Kentucky soil at Vendome Copper and Brass.
What is immediately striking about Peerless is that it is indeed a fully functioning distillery, right smack in the middle of downtown Louisville. From grain to barrel to bottle, every single step of the bourbon-making process takes place under the 110-year-old roof. The building itself is an impressive reuse of space. It was originally home to a tobacco company and then a slew of other industrial means, and the expansive warehouse had potential that Carson and his father saw. And though the building was in near ruins when they acquired it a couple of years ago as the home of Peerless’ rebirth, the vast amount of redesign and disrepair was no deterrent to Carson, a woodworker by trade, who envisioned the entire layout, design and style of the space. The goal was to maintain the feel of the building’s industrial birth while repurposing hardwood floors into the tasting room bar, styling vast beams around door frames and adding interior windows and portholes wherever possible. If there is one thing that Carson wanted to make clear it was this: no smoke and mirrors exist at Peerless. What you see is what you get; they have nothing to hide. The tour drives this point home, weaving through the large and colorful gift shop to the expansive open room housing the cooker and fermenting vats. This isn’t the showroom; it is the entire fleet of distillation tanks owned by Peerless and where all of the action takes place.
A moderately sized and very sleek computer screen resides next to the cooker, keeping meticulous records of the production process. This is Peerless’ digital cookbook and the mother of all distillation computer systems. Carson and his compatriots had the system designed to their exact specifications, comforted by the knowledge that the temperatures are being controlled to near perfection around the clock, the mash bill measured just as planned, every single time. Speaking of the mash bill, Peerless forgoes the use of wheat in their recipe, simply because Carson and his father don’t have a penchant for wheated bourbons. As we made our way down a level past the underside of the tanks to the area housing the column still, Carson noted that there are portholes carved into the side of each vessel, giving everyone a peek at what’s inside; after all, they don’t have anything to hide.
As we approached the still, we found Caleb Kilburn, the head distiller who has a bright smile and is all of 24 years old. A Kentucky native, he’s quick to share that he’s living his dream, fulfilling a life’s passion. He came onto the Peerless team in the early stages, helping out with construction of the facility and the beginnings of the distillation design. Having grown up on a dairy farm, much of the mechanics of distillation mirrored what was already in his blood; coupled with his knack for chemistry and a love of our state’s bourbon tradition. The Taylors knew he was the right man to help bring their family’s bourbon business out of retirement. Caleb offered that they are very pleased with the progress of both the bourbon and rye thus far, a sentiment shared by several notable aficionados who have been lucky enough to sample what has been resting in the barrel for a mere six months. Indeed bourbon and rye require age and do not simply happen overnight. We will not be able to taste the carefully crafted liquor until April 2017 for the rye, and we’ll have to wait until 2019 to see how the bourbon comes together. Could they have purchased bulk bourbon to put in a bottle with their name on it? Sure, but that would go against everything Carson and Corky stand for, a direct contradiction to the ethos of their passion project. Carson wants everyone to know that if it is happening at Peerless, his hands have touched it, his mind has been a part of its development. No detail is too small and his obsession is clear.
In lieu of mass-produced bourbon, they opted to make moonshine to sell until their signature product is available. Bottled at a decidedly low proof, the bite of this moonshine is softened and spiked with a variety of flavors. It is bottled on-site in beautiful glass containers made an hour up the road in Indiana. The moonshine is available for purchase in the gift shop, and a few area restaurants are serving it, including Manny & Merle.
Most of what you see in Peerless is crafted within the state if not close by—the grain for the mash procured on Main Street from Consolidated Grain, the stillage left over after fermentation sent back to a local farm for use as feed. We take a look at the bottling line, glasses of brightly hued moonshine being filled and labeled with the brand name Lucky, chosen by Carson’s wife because, as Carson puts it, who doesn’t want to get lucky or be lucky?
After a stroll through the barrel room, we ended our tour in the tasting space, where I was lucky enough to sample this approachable and deftly flavored moonshine. It’s not at all the moonshine I remember wincing over after sipping suspiciously clear liquid from an old mason jar. Carson moved behind the bar, pouring my samples as if he was in his own kitchen, hopping on the counter and swinging his legs in the manner one only does when he feels completely at home. This is his dream, after all; a reality of his conjuring. Only time will tell if the resurrection of his family business will reestablish their place as bourbon royalty; however when you pour this much passion, patience and love into something, it is more often than not a recipe for success.
Peerless Distilling is located at 120 N. Tenth St., Louisville, KY. Peerless is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children 10 to 17 and no charge for active military personnel and children under 10. Click here to visit their website: kentuckypeerless.com.