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Professor Seth DeBolt is the Director for the Distillation, Wine, and Brewing Studies (DWBS) certificate program at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Dr. Seth DeBolt is the director of the ‘James B Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits’ and the Distillation, Wine and Brewing Undergraduate Certificate Program at the University of Kentucky. He is collaborating on a variety of projects across campus and within the spirits industry focusing on bourbon whiskey production, flavor, quality and the construction of a new state of the art teaching distillery on campus.

We visited with Dr. DeBolt on a historic day when the 30’ column still was being delivered. Watch the video to learn about where the program is now, where it is headed and when students can expect to get their hands on this soon to be open teaching distillery.

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DT: Tell us about the ‘Distillation, Wine, and Brewing Studies’ (DWBS) program at the University of Kentucky?

SD: I think that one of the main things we want to think about here is, the program at the University of Kentucky has been running for 10 years now. It takes a lot of time to turn a big ship like the University, so today, what you are looking at, the still being put in is honestly 10 years of effort and work, that the whole team has put in. And then finally, the whole industry has put in. The James B. Beam Institute, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, all the members, all the major distilleries that have been to the conference, been doing research, pushing us to do this, and it’s probably a hundred years overdue.

When we look forward at where we’re going, this will be open to the students in the fall of this year. So we’ll be commissioning through the summer and letting the students in here to get dirty and play in the fall this year that’s exciting.

DT: What makes this unique in the United States? Is this the only facility like this in the country?

SD: One of the unique things is the state of Kentucky and where 95% of the world’s American whiskey and bourbon are produced is right here within a stone throw of this location. It makes it a perfect place your workforce development and training for the next generation.

When you look broadly around the United States there are lots of craft distilleries this is where we need to train the next generation whe we’re looking at careers and opportunities in the distilled experience category.

DT: What will make their hands-on experience unique here from mashing to fermentation to distilling to barreling to bottling? Will everything be here?

SD: When you think about what they’ll get to experience here it’ll be just like you would, the first day on the job in a large distillery or a small distillery, this will just be trimmed down to a barrel a day, 12 inch column still distillation system where we will be able to go through the entire process all the way through to maturation and barreling. As you look behind you at the Independent Stave Company, Boswell family maturation facility that has 600 barrel capacity, they’ll be able to move all the way through the fundamentals of mashing and fermentation, into the still all the way to the barrel house and everywhere in between.

DT: Distilling is just one of the elements. What are some of the other disciplines within the university that will be part of the overall program from a distilling point of view?

SD: When you think about it, you have the distillers, you have the engineers, you have the blenders and food scientists, you have marketing, finance, brand house end of things, and all of those colleges have lined in you know we’ve got the it’s a really it’s a transdisciplinary program and you think there’s not just one person that makes an entire distillery a run. We’re training the folks that are in every element of the business that’s why we have a certificate that fits in underneath your college major and then has classes in all the different colleges so you can get a really well-rounded focused education over 12 credit hours throughout a couple of years and then being industry ready at the back end.

DT: And you are part of the School of Agriculture?

SD: We are part of the University of Kentucky Agriculture, Food and Environment.

DT: What will this mean for the AG side of things as far as growing crops and corn and rye and things like that?

SD: Within a stones throw we have a few thousand acre farm out here where we grow wheat, rye, barley, and corn and are constantly releasing new varieties and experimenting with new varieties that serve the Kentucky producers. And that’s really special and unique to a land-grant university, the University of Kentucky that goes out into the agricultural sector.

Those grains are the basis of the distilled spirits of Kentucky particularly as we look to reintroduce rye and develop new wheat varieties and to continue to experiment and innovate in that space.

DT: What about on the barrel side of thing? How does this connect to the White Oak initiative?

SD: When we think about that the Department of Forestry is a 10,000-acre active working forest and a wood products lab that’s just down the road. And we have the Forestry Department on campus here interfacing with the ability to look at maturation in a real-time sense as we look to improve sustainability and quality of white oak. And so when you think about that in the sustainability side it goes all the way through production, seedling development, germ plasma development, and then all the way into the production phase. We’re really well suited to doing that because historically all that was taking place in Kentucky.

This is just a canvas that’s a hundred years overdue to serve our industry stakeholders here in the state.” ~ Professor Seth DeBolt

DT: Who are some of the partners that you’re working with that are making this possible?

SD: While the name on the door is the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, and we’re really grateful for that partnership, this is open to everyone for the distilling in community, locally, nationally, and internationally. It’ll serve as a place where students can come and learn about the industry and then move that into their own space, their own you know geographical location, and their own set of challenges. Having this on campus is really overdue.

DT: How many students will be participating in the program each year?

SD: Right now, there are hundreds of students coming through the program over the last five years. I think there’s about 140 students between my online and face-to-face section. Just in my class this spring and those students come through the certificate and then they move on into the industry. When this is open, it’s going to be a game changer. We’ve got a full laboratory for doing sensory analysis, doing analytical chemistry on the project, we’ve got a full active operating distillery, two classrooms and everything in between. So students can come in here and get their hands dirty. That hasn’t existed until now so the students have been taught on small benchtop scale units, now they’re going to be able to transform that experience.

DT: There’s always a lot of competition between Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Will you allow Tennessee students to participate in the University of Kentucky program? (giggles)

SD: That’s a great question. We really welcome our friends from Tennessee. We have a great, actually a great relationship, between the land-grant colleges, University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky. While they’re competitive on the sports field, there’s nothing but shared values and respect on the scientific and workforce development front. We’re already reaching out and welcoming those students to come up here to take the certificate and really raise the bar across the board for everybody.

DT: Thanks so much. Cheers!

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