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The late Stephen Francis Thompson, Founder and President, Kentucky Artisan Distillery, former president of Brown-Forman Distilleries and a pioneering resource for craft distilleries across the country was awarded the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Member and Master Distiller Jim Rutledge shared a few stories about his friend Steve Thompson.

Steve was, ‘The Frankenstein of Distillation’

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“A few years ago, I had a meeting down at Vendome [Copper & Brass Works] with Mike and Rob Sherman. Prior to the meeting Rob and I started sharing Steve stories.

“Rob was saying how they could often hear that someone is wandering around their plant outside or maybe even inside, looking at equipment, and they would find Steve. He was down there just looking for something that Vendome might be able to give to him that maybe he could use around his distillery. When Steve built his distillery, he was very innovative and thinking outside the box. He would collect equipment, tanks, vessels, pipes, whatever, anywhere he could get it. He didn’t spend much money if any on his distillery equipment when he started. Rob was laughing talking about the story that his stills, his mash tub, his cooker, the fermenters, nothing was in sync. The still was larger than the capacity of the cooker. Several of the fermenters that he had nothing was the same size. He would just find these parts. He said at Vendome they nicknamed him ‘The Frankenstein of Distillation’. He would just grab random parts and he would make it work.

“It was just a few years ago, if you knew Steve, you would often hear him say, ‘If you dress like you don’t have much money, and you buy something, you can probably get a discount or even better you can get it for free.’ And that’s why he was walking around Vendome.

“It was just a few years ago that he picked up five 800-gallon stainless steel cookers, with copper steam tubing in it, that were used by a tomato canning plant which was not too far from his distillery. He brought them all back and he didn’t know how he was going to use them; he didn’t have room for five maybe just one more tank in his distillery of some kind. Originally, he thought he was going to use it for a second cooker to supplement what he already had. He later changed his mind and says, ‘I think I want a still, a combination pot still and column still. I’ve always wanted that.’ So, he decided to take this vessel to Vendome and have them put a flange and a column on it and he would have the still that he’d been wanting.

“So, one very cold, Jeremy tells me it was a very cold, extremely cold, December morning, Steve and Jeremy loaded up the still and took it down to Vendome. Then on the way as they approached Vendome, Steve spotted a forklift driver in the driveway of the plant. He got his attention real quick and said, ‘Hey, we need to unload this tank here, we are going to have some work done on it.’ The guy said, ‘Well, I have to get a hold of Rob and make sure my boss ok’s this.’ Steve says, ‘I’ve already talked to Rob, he knows everything about it. I talked to Rob; he knows exactly what we are going to do.’ So, the guy finally unloaded it. As soon as he got the tank off and in the middle of the driveway of Vendome Steve and Jeremy jumped back in the truck and headed back to Crestwood to Kentucky Artisan Distillery.

“About 15 minutes on the way back Steve makes a phone call. ‘Hey Rob, this is Steve Thompson, I just want to let you know, I just dropped a tank off there and I want you to make a still out of it and I’ll need it by April, four months from now.’ Rob was caught off guard and it was the first time he ever heard about this.

“Rob called him a couple days later to talk about it. ‘I’ve looked at your tank. We can cut the whole in the top, we can put a flange and column on it we can get it done but we are really busy. We can probably get it done by June.’ And Steve says, ‘That won’t work, I need it by April.’

“I don’t know why he needed it by April, he just wanted it by then. Again, Rob says, ‘We can’t get this done in four months.’ Steve says, ‘Well, four months from now I’m going to have the money to pay for it if you wait until June I’m going to be broke again. So, if you want to get paid for the job, you need to get it to me in April.’

“Vendome delivered the still completed in April.”

Steve Could Just Make Things Work

“Steve was a genius. He was able to make things work. An example of that, one of our brands is Cream of Kentucky, we’ve had a few runs, I’ve been retired for seven years, semi-retired, anyway. But we’ve had a few runs of Cream of Kentucky Bourbon and this past year we decided let’s try some Cream of Kentucky Rye. We purchased some rye whiskey, we bottled at 100 proof, bottled-in-bond, estate straight rye whiskey. We gave a bottle to Fred Minnick for his Ascot Awards. It ended up winning double platinum. The point is here is that the whiskey that we used was distilled, aged, and bottled by Kentucky Artisan Distillery. That’s what Steve could do with the equipment he had.

“I’m very proud to be up here to introduce Steve to the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.”

The Newest Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Ethical, compassionate, and hard-working, Stephen F. Thompson lived a life rich full of family, friends, and spirits for 78 years. He was a man who embraced every moment as an adventure and opportunity to learn and challenge the norm. He never hesitated to take a risk, encourage others to be courageous, and most of all annoy people. He often said, annoying people was a hobby of his.

Kentucky Artisan Distillery - Founder Steve Thompson
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Kentucky Artisan Distillery Founder Steve Thompson.

With an inquisitive mind he was a natural when it came to creative solutions to complex challenges. “Being a problem solver is something you just have to be to work in the spirits industry,” or “figure it out,” he would often say.

Prior to beginning his 40-plus-year career in the spirits industry, he received multiple degrees from Cali Poly, Stanford University and University of Hartford, as well as making professional stops in manufacturing.

His formal introduction into the spirits industry would begin at Heublein, before it became known as Diageo. While there, he oversaw all manufacturing activities at numerous plants that produced such brands as Smirnoff Vodka, Cuervo Tequila and a variety of pre-mixed cocktails – the original RTD.

From Diageo, Brown-Forman would hire him to be Executive Vice President of Manufacturing where one of his early projects was modernizing Blue Grass Cooperage. From there, he would be promoted to President of the Distilling Company. In this role, he was responsible for all production, engineering, and R&D for Jack Daniels, Early Times, Canadian Mist, Southern Comfort, California Cooler, and Thoroughbred Plastics. Of course, one of his most crowning achievements at Brown-Forman, was to acquire and lead the construction of the Labrot and Graham Distillery, which is now formally known as Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky.

After retiring from Brown-Forman, Steve found himself commuting back and forth to Hawaii to create Hawaii Island Spirits Inc. This company founded several micro distilleries that produced rums, pineapple and grain-based vodkas and Okolehao-Hawaiian whisky. Moreover, he helped Levecke Corporation complete many expansions to keep up with the growing demand of contract bottling and private labels.

His final spirits adventure, Steve and his business partners opened Kentucky Artisan Distillery (KAD) in Crestwood, Kentucky. KAD set out to offer contract distilling, processing, co-packing and barrel storage for many well-known and successful bourbon whiskey brands, including; Whiskey Row Bourbon, Billy Goat Strut Whiskey, Jeffersons Bourbon, Barrell Bourbon, Cream of Kentucky, Corner Creek, Bib and Tucker and Mastersons, just to name a few. As the years went by, KAD would serve as the “homeplace” to Jefferson’s Bourbon, become the 18th member of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, grow its co-packing capabilities to 100,000 cases a year, contract distill 5,800 barrels a year, warehouse upwards of 38,000 barrels, and employ 25-plus team members.

As you can tell, Stephen lived an adventurous life. Of course, he would be the first to tell you, he would not have been as successful without the love and support of his first wife, Vickie, his widow, Linda, his four children: Stephen, Paul, Sherri, and Katie and seven grandchildren.

Kentucky Artisan Distillery - Founder and President Stephen Francis Thompson and His Dog Red
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Kentucky Artisan Distillery Founder and President Stephen Francis Thompson and his dog Red.

Watch the Entire 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

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