Casey Jones Distillery is a small distillery in Western Kentucky. The distillery was founded in 2014 by Master Distiller Arlon “AJ” Casey Jones and his wife, Master of Everything Else Peg Hays. AJ’s distilling lineage goes back to his grandfather Casey Jones. Casey Jones comes from Golden Pond a city that no longer exists.
Golden Pond, Kentucky is a small town that was formed in 1882. It was named for a nearby pond that gives off a golden reflection as the sun sets. The town prospered from abundant natural resources in the area, the rich valley soils, the timbered hills, cool springs, iron ore, and wildlife. Unfortunately, these rich natural resources caught the attention of the federal government when the TVA took over the land surrounding this area via eminent domain to build a dam that would transform Land Between the Rivers into Land Between the Lakes (LBL), as a national recreation area. The sun set on Golden Pond for the final time in 1969 as the last resident was removed from the town to make way for the lake.
One of Golden Ponds most famous citizens was Casey Jones. As a young man Jones took a job making coffins. If you take a close look at the still used at Casey Jones Distillery, you’ll see that unlike most modern stills that are round, this still is square or rectangular in shape. Though perhaps not the best shape for stirring mash that isn’t what mattered back in the days of moonshining. What mattered is it could be easily moved, would fit in the back of the truck or wagon and it would make great moonshine.
A Three-Piece Square Moonshine Still
Peg Hays explained that the Casey Jones square moonshine still was simple yet way ahead of its time.
“It would come in three pieces. The square pot still, the line arm and the condenser so there were three pieces with handles,” said Hays. And then she added, “Of course, building coffins he knew how to build with handles,” so we had to hear more about that. Turns out when Jones was younger one of his jobs was helping to build coffins.
“The rumor is that when he was asked as a young man, probably a kid, after he started building coffins, if he could build a still. He was an incredible builder, he had no education, he couldn’t read or write through the day he died but he was a building engineering savant,” said Hays. “When asked if he could build a still he said, ‘I never have built one, but I’ll bet I can.’” According to the lore, the first still he ever saw was the first one he ever built.
“If you think about a coffin, the profile of these stills that be built is about the same,” said Hays. “They had to have a top that would help strengthen the sides. And then had the bends in the top, his stuff wasn’t a round circle, that would have been so much easier to build, you just put one seem in it. His [stills] were really masterpieces. His technique was great, he built a lot of his own tools, the crimping tools, he used a white gas-powered soldering torch. AJ has some of the tools that he used. He was incredible and could build anything.”
1967: Casey Jones Square Pot Still
2014: Arlon Casey 'AJ' Jones Square Pot Still
2022: Specific Mechanical Systems Square Pot Still
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Unfortunately for Casey Jones the word of his great still building skills traveled and eventually the ‘revenuers’ caught up with him and he was arrested. Jones ended up doing two stints in Mill Point Federal Prison for still building and moonshining. When he finally got out the second time, his still building and moonshining days were over. Well, almost over.
“In 1967 when the Land Between the Lakes was formally created as a national recreation area, because of Casey’s fame and notoriety of building illegal square pot stills with a unique condenser, the federal government commissioned him to build the only legal still he ever built,” explained Hays.
“It was on display in the visitor center for 40 years until 2007 when the Forest Service took over management of Land Between the Lakes from TVA. The Forest Service remodeled the Visitor Center and took it out. We found out about it. After about a year of petitioning and asking questions the Forest Service called AJ one day and told him he could have it. So, he went and got it. Then he built the still we have today off his Grandad’s still that is here on display. AJ built the working still that we use today based on that still.”
“As far as I know, we are the only legal distillery in the country to run a square pot still.” Master Distiller Arlon “AJ” Casey Jones
$1.9 Million Distillery Expansion Plans
In April of this year the distillery announced it is investing $1.9 million to expand the distilling and visitor experience operations to keep pace with consumer demand.
The nearly $2 million expansion will see the company add a 1,000-gallon hybrid pot still, fermentation and mash cooking system to expand production capacity of bourbon and other spirits. Additional support equipment such as a bottling line, distilled water system and alcohol storage also will be installed. The project will include a nearly 3,800-square-foot barrel aging rickhouse that will support the increased barrel storage and aging necessary for the expanded operations.
Casey Jones has been working with Specific Mechanical Systems a manufacturer of brewing and distillation operating out of British Columbia, Canada. Specific was contracted to build a 1000-gallon hybrid pot still and matching 1000-gallon mash cooker.
While the-1000 gallon still was underway, Casey Jones Distillery quoted a second still in keeping with the distillery’s original square pot design. The request presented some unique challenges, but immediately excited the engineers at Specific.
After much debate, Specific decided to tackle the project with the aim of finishing the work for the 2022 American Distilling Institute’s conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The still was revealed as the centerpiece of Specific’s booth for the conference.
The still is modeled after the 140-gallon square pot still handmade by AJ which was modeled after the original Casey Jones square pot still. The engineers used photos of AJ’s still as a design reference and worked with AJ to recreate the icon square shape as pioneered by the Distillery’s namesake.
“The Grandfather” is a one-of-a-kind industrial grade 200-gallon square pot still. “The Grandfather” will primarily be used to finish award winning, bourbon, barrel cut, and moonshine spirits and maintain the signature flavor and authenticity that are core to the distillery’s operations.
The still represents the connection between the distillery’s past and its future and will become a focal point of the distillery’s brand moving forward.
“Do you remember that first new car you bought. Well, this was 10 times better. The only thing missing was that new car smell but that will come with first batch we run on it. Casey would be grinning from ear to ear, and he would still be thinking how to improve the next one,” remarked AJ.
‘Common Wealth of Kentucky Art Project’ to Hang AJ’s Portrait at the Distillery on Oct. 8
The Commonwealth of Kentucky Project explores and reveals the richness embodied in this beautiful state, the people who live there, and the common connections they have with one another. The Project is a culmination of a year-long project where artist Kelly Brewer, writer and digital storyteller Beth Pride, and advocate Jill Johnson traveled Kentucky painting and interviewing people from all walks of life is a powerful, multi-sensory experience.
At one point on this journey Brewer went to Casey Jones Distillery and sat down with AJ to hear his family’s story and to paint his portrait for this collection. Altogether the project includes 70 Kentuckians including the likes of James Beard award winning Chef Quita Michel who owns several restaurants around the state, Landscape Architect John Carloftis whose green thumb can be seen at several distilleries around the state and the son of Maker’s Mark Distillery founder Bill Samuels, Jr.
The artwork will be on display from August 22 until October 1 where art and history enthusiasts may visit LexArts Gallery in downtown Lexington. Visitors will connect with a community of 70 portraits, read a about their lives, hear their voices linked through QR scan technology, and see the places where they live with a stroll through Kentucky life artwork and videos that show the process.
Painter Kelly Brewer and storyteller Beth Pride will be at Casey Jones Distillery on Saturday, October 8, 2022, to present their book “The Common Wealth of Kentucky” that explores and reveals the richness embodied in our beautiful state of Kentucky, the people who live here, and the common connections we have with one another. Kelly will do painting exhibitions, there will be a food truck on site 12 noon – 6pm and at 3:30pm, Kelly’s oil painting of AJ will be “hung” in the distillery!
Casey Jones Distillery, founded in 2014, is nestled on a picturesque 74-acre farmstead in the rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Casey Jones is a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. It’s nearly $2M expansion is paving the way to becoming a premier craft producer in the region.