Word on the street was Seagram’s (please don’t call it MGP, they had nothing to do with this) had 1,000 barrels of eight year old bourbon for sale and they were looking for a buyer. This isn’t where our story started but, it’s a part of our story that put us on the map, and got our product on the shelf and behind the bar, quickly.
“Let’s Build a Distillery, How Hard Can It Be?”
This is a story by Josh Quinn, Co-Founder of Boone County Distilling. It’s a story about how he and his Co-Founder Jack Wells went from an idea, to a startup to buyers of 500 barrels of whiskey after tasting a mere 2 ounces of an eight year old bourbon. It’s a tale best summarized by the words of the Jack Wells, “Let’s build a distillery, how hard can it be?”
The story began with a chance meeting where else, but in a bar. I wasn’t there drinking, I was there to play in the band. If you are thinking Rock n’ Roll hold on, this was an Irish Pub and I was there to play the bagpipes. Now if you are thinking, I must be someone in the fire department, you are close, I was in law enforcement (still am), the rest of the band was made up of police, fire and other public safety pros. We were playing a St. Patrick’s Day gig at a new bar in 1998, just outside of Cincinnati. If you look at a map, we are in a tri-state area surrounded by Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Travel 30 minutes North East and you are in Cincinnati, OH. Travel 30 minutes North West and you are in Lawrenceburg, IN, home of the historic Seagram’s Distillery. We were invited to perform at the grand opening of Jack Quinn’s Irish Ale House & Pub.
That was the night I met serial entrepreneur Jack Wells. In between playing music, I noticed a gentleman standing alone by the front door of the pub (outside), who I thought was a manager. I took it upon myself to walk up to him, introduce myself, and thank him for inviting us to participate in the grand opening festivities. He introduced himself as Jack Wells, owner…not manager.
We carried on a conversation and he eventually discovered I was a police officer in the area he lived in. He went on to say that he had been a life squad crew member earlier in his life, so we had this instant common connection to public safety. We became and stayed friends for years.
Discovering a Dead Distillery in Our Own Backyard
The idea of building a distillery evolved in Jack’s basement over a period of about a year, beginning in the fall of 2011. The two of us would gather regularly at his house to enjoy a glass of whiskey. Jack was more of a Crown Royal fan at the time and I was the bourbon enthusiast. We’d do what most whiskey lovers do, explore labels, stories, try to identify flavors, solve some world problems, and enjoy one another’s company.
In the Winter of 2012 we began do a deep dive into bourbon history. This was the period in time where several labels were misleading the public with tall tales and misrepresentations, so we began to pay more attention and try to discern the tall tales from the real ones.
During our exploration of the various stories, one of us researched the community we live and work in, Boone County, Kentucky. It was at that moment where we discovered a research paper written by a local historian identifying an old distillery, The Petersburg Distillery (aka: The Boone County Distillery) that existed on the banks of the Ohio River in Boone County. As we read the story, it was really hard to believe that there was a massive distillery that existed from 1833-1900 in Petersburg. In fact from our research we discovered that in 1880 the Petersburg Distillery was the largest distillery in the state of Kentucky. It sat along the Ohio River nearly across the river from another distillery founded 14 years later in 1847, the Seagram’s Distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN.
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We began researching the story and uncovered loads of history in written and photographic form. We located old grave sites, diaries, old physical structures, etc. I think it was at that point we knew we had blown the dust off of the cover of an old local period in history.
Building a Distillery is the Opposite of Easy
Jack and I fell in love with this lost piece of local Bourbon history. Most folks believe that Bourbon history revolves around the Louisville and I-65 corridor, or perhaps Bourbon County. Actually, Northern Kentucky lays claim to a history equally as old, unfortunately it was forgotten and lost in time. If you’ve ever been to Petersburg, you’ll know that is an old river town that was lost when the distillery closed in 1900, not much has happened there since.
Jack, being the entrepreneur he is (if you know the personality type, they are a lot like cowboys) notices that bourbon is becoming popular and he’s nearly completed his transformation and abandoned Canadian Whiskey for Kentucky Bourbon.
Jack, the entrepreneur, says “Let’s build a distillery, how hard can it be?” My investigative personality replies “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out”….the rest is basically history.
This is a good point to take a break and laugh out loud…building a distillery is the opposite of easy and takes 5 or 6 times more money than you think it will…hindsight is always 20/20. If you’ve read that you can start a distillery for $250,000 don’t believe it, that’s just scratching the surface.
How to Build a Distillery
We’ve been blessed with a lot of great things falling into place and good Karma. The journey of the buildout began with a visit to Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, where we met Rob Sherman. Rob and team eventually built our 500 gallon copper pot still, affectionately named “The Bear.” William Snyder, the first owner of The Boone County Distilling Company in 1833, believe it or not, owned a pet bear that was well memorialized in local folklore by local historian Lewis Loder (1857-1904).
Anyway, Rob Sherman at Vendome gave me a list of whiskey consultants that might be interested in helping us get started. I called the first one on the list, simply because he had a nearby area code that would represent someone that likely lives within 20 minutes of us. The name of the first consultant I called was Larry Ebersold, a Chemical Engineer (who as it turned out, lives in Boone County) and worked at Seagram’s Distillery for 38 years. Our distillery layout and whiskey making processes are all the result of what Larry sketched out on a piece of graph paper with a pencil. Larry has taught us how to make excellent bourbon and rye whiskey.
“Sourced” Bourbon is Not a Dirty Word
Some people hear the words “Sourced Bourbon” and they cringe and that’s ok. Some startup craft distilleries start out making their own white dog whiskey, gin or vodka from day one and others start out with sourced product and many do both. Any way you do it is perfectly fine as long as you are straight up about the source of the product with your consumers. Always look for the words “made by” and “aged in” to get the full story of a spirit. At Boone County Distilling we are distilling our own bourbon and rye six days a week in our distillery and we were fortunate to find an eight year old sourced bourbon (that we aged an additional two years) so we had product to bottle and sell early on.
Larry Ebersold, the consultant, once said “Making whiskey and letting the barrel work its magic is the easy part…it’s getting here that’s the hard part’. He’s spot on.
1,000 Barrels of Bourbon for Sale
We were fortunate enough to meet Marc Wilson of Top Shelf Lobby who found us our first barrels of bourbon whiskey. Marc came to us with an opportunity to purchase 1,000 barrels of bourbon. It was about an eight year old bourbon made at the old Seagrams Distillery in two separate years; Spring of 2005 and Spring of 2006. It had a mashbill of 75% Corn, 21% Rye, and 4% Malted Barley, barreled at 120 proof and matured in a Charred New American Oak Barrels with a #4 Char.
A common trend is to say this was distilled at MGPI, which is a great distillery, but it wasn’t. It was distilled at Seagram’s, which employed many people in our region, under the watch of then Master Distiller Larry Ebersold, which as you know was a mentor to many people, including now retired Master Distiller Greg Metze.
We were lucky enough to have Larry Ebersold accept us as a client around 2012. Larry’s been our sole consultant since day one, and presently remains so. He was a sole source of advice when selecting this bourbon, which he is partial to as you might imagine. He was able to read the barrel codes on each batch and tell us exactly where they aged at in the warehouse(s). He also was able to tell us that although each barrel might have some variance, they would all be consistent. He knew it was good whiskey.
We were fortunate enough to run across these barrels. When they were offered to us, Larry said they were the most expensive barrels of bourbon he had ever heard of at the time. We were sent a 2 ounce sample to decide if we wanted to buy the bourbon. We could have bought 1,000 barrels, but chose to only buy 500 (in hindsight that was a mistake), but who knew in 2012 what would happen.
Offered 2.5x What We Paid 500 Barrels of Bourbon, Not Once but Twice
About a year later on two separate occasions, consultants called us and said there was a ‘global partner’ that was interested in offering us about 2.5 times what we paid for the 500 barrels of bourbon. All of this occurred just before we pulled the trigger to build the distillery, which was always the goal…to build a distillery and have Larry teach us how to make exceptional Bourbon and Rye Whiskey. We could have sold the 500 barrels and tucked away a nice profit and just walked away; having never built a distillery or resurrected some great local history, but we didn’t. We chose to get into this business, which is tough, and chase the American Dream.
Bourbon and Rye “Made by Ghosts”
Click to see full size.
“Made By Ghosts” is probably one of the things we get asked the most. Why “Made By Ghosts”? It’s a reference to history and a memorable phrase that allows us to transition into the great history lesson and honor those that came before us. Nothing more, nothing less.
Anyway, that’s the story. We’re really just average people in pursuit of the American Dream. It’s about making great whiskey and re-telling a long lost story, placing Boone County back in the historical conversations of Kentucky Bourbon History.
Josh Quinn is the Co-Founder of Boone County Distilling and still involved in law enforcement in Boone County Kentucky.