Bourbon is booming. It’s about time, isn’t it? Being from Kentucky, the growing press and intense interest in our state’s greatest gift to the world seems almost like old news. This is part of the fiber of our bluegrass, the distinctive cloth of our home. And with this tradition of distillation comes a storied history, families who have built and passed the trade of making bourbon down generation after generation. Prohibition put an unfortunate end to all too many of these lineages; time heals all wounds however, and when something is in your blood, it takes far more than a ban on liquor to extinguish the flames of a family legacy. Such is the case with Corky and Carson Taylor, fourth and fifth generation members of the Peerless Distilling family.
Purchased in 1889 by Henry Karver, Carson’s Great-Great-Grandfather, Peerless Distilling was located in Henderson, Kentucky. Under his watch Peerless grew to produce over 10,000 barrels per year and would have likely continued to prosper if it weren’t for the war abroad and the war against liquor that befell our country in the early 1900’s. Carson and his father Corky made the determination to rebuild their family’s legacy in Louisville, selecting an old brick warehouse on the corner of 10th and Main Street as the new home for Peerless. I arrived for my tour of Peerless on a rainy day, driving straight over the great Ninth Street divide, thinking to myself how wonderful it is to see new businesses breaking down this invisible wall. Upon entry, the column still is the first thing I see, visible through a chain of windows, the still stretching tall to the ceiling beyond, a formidable tower of sleek copper crafted by Kentuckians on Kentucky soil at Vendome Copper and Brass.
What is immediately striking about Peerless is that it is indeed a fully functioning distillery, right smack in the middle of downtown Louisville. From grain to barrel to bottle, every single step of the bourbon-making process is taking place under the 110 year old roof. The building itself is an impressive reuse of space, originally home to a tobacco company and then a slew of other industrial means, Carson and his Father saw the potential in the expansive warehouse, which was in near ruins when they acquired it as the home of Peerless’ rebirth. A woodworker by trade, the vast amount of redesign and disrepair was no deterrent to Carson, who envisioned the entire layout, design and style of the space, maintaining the feel of the building’s industrial birth while re-purposing hardwood floors into the tasting room bar, styling vast beams around door frames and adding interior windows and portholes wherever possible. If there is one thing that Carson wanted to make clear it was this: there are no smoke and mirrors at Peerless. What you see is what you get, they have nothing to hide. The tour drives this point home indeed, weaving through the large and colorful gift shop to the expansive open room housing the cooker and fermenting vats. This isn’t the showroom, it is the entire fleet of distillation tanks owned by Peerless and where all of the action takes place.
A moderately sized and very sleek computer screen resides next to the cooker, keeping meticulous records of the production process. This is Peerless’ digital cookbook and the mother of all distillation computer systems. Carson and his compatriots had the system designed to their exact specifications, comforted by the knowledge that the temperatures are being controlled to near perfection around the clock, the mash bill measured just as planned, every single time. Speaking of the mash bill, Peerless’ foregoes the use of wheat in their recipe, simply because Carson and his Father don’t have a penchant for wheated bourbons. We make our way down a level past the underside of the tanks and head to the area housing the column still, Carson making note as we walk that there are portholes carved into the side of each vessel, giving everyone a peek at what’s inside; after all they don’t have anything to hide.
As we approach the still we find Caleb, the head Distiller who has a bright smile and is all of 24 years old. A Kentucky native, he is quick to share that he is living his dream, fulfilling a life’s passion. He came onto the Peerless Team in the early stages, helping out with construction of the facility and the beginnings of the distillation design. Having grown up on a dairy farm, much of the mechanics of distillation mirrored that of what was already in his blood; coupled with his knack for chemistry and a love of our state’s bourbon tradition and the Taylors knew he was the right man to help bring their family’s bourbon business out of retirement. Caleb offered that they are very pleased with the progress of both the bourbon and rye thus far, this sentiment shared by several notable aficionados who have been lucky enough to sample what has been resting in the barrel for a mere six months. Indeed bourbon and rye requires age and does not simply happen over night. We will not be able to taste this carefully crafted liquor until April of 2017 for the rye and we’ll have to wait until 2019 to see how the bourbon comes together. Could they have purchased bulk bourbon to put in a bottle with their name on it? Sure; but that would go against everything Carson and Corky stand for, a direct contradiction to the ethos of their passion project. Carson wants everyone to know that if it is happening at Peerless his hands have touched it, his mind has been a part of its development. No detail is too small and his obsession is clear.
In lieu of mass-produced bourbon they opted to make moonshine to sell until their signature product is available. Bottled at a decidedly low proof, the bite of this moonshine is softened and spiked with a variety of flavors. It is bottled on site in beautiful glass containers made an hour up the road in Indiana. Most of what you see in Peerless is crafted within the state if not close by, the grain for the mash procured on Main Street from Consolidated Grain, the stillage leftover after fermentation sent back to a local farm for use as feed. We take a look at the bottling line, glasses of brightly hued moonshine being filled and labeled with the brand name Lucky chosen by Carson’s wife because, as Carson put it ‘who doesn’t want to get lucky or be lucky?’
After a stroll through the barrel room we end our tour in the tasting space and I am lucky enough to sample this approachable and deftly flavored moonshine, not at all the moonshine I remember wincing over after sipping suspiciously clear liquid from an old mason jar. Carson moves behind the bar pouring my samples as if he is in his own kitchen, hopping on the counter and swinging his legs in the manner one only does when he feels completely at home. This is his dream after all, a reality of his conjuring. Only time will tell if the resurrection of his family business will reestablish their place as bourbon royalty; however when you pour this much passion, patience and love into something it is more often than not, a recipe for success.
A special thanks to our presenting sponsor Peerless Distilling Company for Slow Food Bluegrass’s 2nd Annual Fried Chicken Throw Down. Peerless is proud to be a family owned company with a storied history in the bourbon industry. They are committed to keeping everything local! Cheers to a good, clean, fair bourbon and moonshine distillery.