When you’ve recently opened a distillery that’s been added to an already established business, you don’t have a lot of time to sit and around and chew the fat. On a balmy spring day in Danville not long ago, I managed to get a few minutes of time with Wilderness Trace’s head distiller and owner Shane Baker to ask him about how they do things at one of Kentucky’s newest distilleries.
SP The distillery hasn’t been up and running very long. How are things going so far?
SB Very smooth and busy. We’re fortunate to have years of experience in making quality alcohol and that allowed us to move from installation to making world class spirits vey quickly.
SP How does your parent company, Ferm Solutions, factor into the distillery side of things?
SB Ferm Solutions is the heart of our distillery and a few others, it’s the origin of our knowledge and experience on making super premium spirits. We’ve worked with around 180 distilleries around the world making fuel ethanol to every spirit and from every starch source you can imagine. Ferm Solutions provided us with a world of collective knowledge and 90% of the time problem solving fermentation or distillation issues. That collective experience allowed us to develop a best practices approach to making premium spirits.
SP Why did you decide to go with the sweet mash production method over sour mash?
SB To us, craft means local, handmade and something unique. We wanted our bourbon to be all three of those but, more importantly, unique. We want to maximize the flavor expression of our quality grains through a very soft and smooth finish which simply requires a sweet mash process. Sour mash processes work on the principle of acidyfying the mash or lowering the pH which makes it more bitter. Most are afraid of the complicated sweet mash process because of the potential for contamination by bacteria which causes inconsistent flavors and loss of yield but, this is our day-job you know, we should be able to do it and do it well. More importantly, there is a difference in the taste and it will help our spirits stand out for people seeking something special.
SP You’re also going to release a rye whiskey?
SB That’s our goal but, more importantly, we only want grains that we grow here in Kentucky or ultimately here in Boyle County. So, our challenge is being successful in growing rye. Our Kentucky climate can grow great corn, wheat and barley but, we don’t grow rye well if at all here in Kentucky fit for beverage grade. If and when we obtain rye from Kentucky we’ll put away some rye whiskey. Personally, I like my bourbon wheat, neat and not muddles in a cocktail.
SP What kind of quantity as far as yearly production are you aiming for with your bourbon and rye releases?
SB You would think the marketing plan is really complicated planning out five to six years but, it was actually fairly simple. The answer is all we can make! We have the capacity to produce close to 800 barrels per year if we don’t sleep as much. Our first release, several years from now, will only be about 100 barrels. As most barrels are pre-sold, the plan is to set back a percentage of production for longer aging and we aren’t at max production yet due to our barrelhouse not being ready.
SP Are you going to continue producing vodka and rum in the future?
SB The funny story was that we really were only branding those spirits to build confidence in our bourbon production. In a twist of fate, they’ve turned into their own flagship brands and have an awesome following of loyal and growing ambassadors. We’ve already increased production around both to keep up with demand and foresee not losing them but separating the spirits production into their own operation down the road.
SP Do you foresee a day when you’ll be releasing some longer aged and/or experimental bourbons?
SB We certainly will be. We already have some experimental whiskey aging right now, it’s our award winning vodka mash bill aging as a light whiskey and, as I mentioned before, we are setting back a percentage of production each year for longer aged goods but, it will be when the bourbon is matured to taste as opposed to a year target. We’ve planned to just put back a 20 year barrel for the hell of it however; our goal isn’t to re-invent the wheel. We know what quality bourbon tastes like and that’s what we’re after.
SP Have you thought about producing craft beer?
SB We have several customers that are breweries and we have given it some thought. We’ve been approached by a few wanting to do it but frankly, we’re really focused on making our tripod of premium spirits; bourbon, vodka and aged rum.
SP The craft bourbon industry has exploded in Kentucky in the last few years. Do you think the trend will continue in the States and possibly globally?
SB There’s no doubt the trend will continue. There are eight craft distilleries in Kentucky today, in the next two years there will be up to 10 to 15 more just here in Kentucky and we’re one of the slower growing states. The market trends are changing with people seeking locally grown products, handmade quality and something unique. That’s all across the world right now. The economy made us slow down and think for a change about quality and where things come from.
SP The big question; when will the first bourbon run be bottled?
SB That’s easy, when it’s ready. Our goal is 4.5 to 5 years but, we’ll know when it’s ready.
SP Shane, thanks for your time and good luck with all your ventures into the spirits world.
SB Thank you.