Interview with Town Branch’s Ken Lee, Brewery Manager, and Mark Coffman, Director of Engineering
By Richard Thomas
When Alltech expanded it’s brewery by adding Town Branch Distillery, it became the first company to make bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky since the closure of the Old James E. Pepper Distillery in 1958. During a recent visit to this latest addition to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I was able to have a wide-ranging conversation with their two top whiskey-makers, and among other things discussed what Town Branch Distillery is up to and what their future might hold.
This interview has been divided into two parts, and Part II will appear on Monday, January 21.
RT: I live in Portugal, where the only two American whiskeys I can find easily and at reasonable prices are Four Roses and Jack Daniel’s. Many of our European readers report similar problems. Does Lyons Spirits have any plans to expand its reach in Europe in the near future? Can you help us all out and get us some more quality bourbon?
MC: We are presently setting up a program and marketing to start distribution and sales of our spirits into Europe starting in 2013. We will start out with our Town Branch Bourbon and Pearse Lyons Reserve. Both our spirits we produce at our Town Branch Distillery at Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in Lexington Kentucky. Norway and Sweden will soon have our beers, including the Bourbon Barrel Ale. We hope to have our spirits in Ireland soon, and then into England soon after that.
RT: Your parent company, Alltech, sent distilling equipment to a brewery in Ireland, turning them into a brewery-distillery, much like yourselves. Could you tell us a bit about your Irish counterparts? Will they make anything like the beer and whiskey you make here?
KL: That is Carlow Brewing Company located in Carlow County just a bit south of Dublin, and they have their own products as far as beer goes. They also distribute our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The stills that we sent over Ireland were made in Louisville Kentucky by Vendome Copper and Brass Company. They are producing an Irish whiskey. This started production in November and barrels are being laid down every day. They will not be making our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, one item that is very unique about this special beer is that Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company is located in the heart of Bourbon County and having access to some of the best bourbons in the world right at your door step gives us an advantage.. we’d be importing this special beer.
RT: You would send that yourselves.
KL: Yes, we would send that ourselves, because [the Bourbon Barrel Ale] has its own special personality. I think that’s open ended, what they’ll do over there and what sort of marriage they’ll have with beer and Irish whiskey at Carlow. But I think that’s under the brand name O’Hara’s.
RT: Since you are sending Kentucky beer and whiskey to Ireland, will some of the Irish stuff be coming back to the States?
KL: That’s a good question, I would say why not. There are so many things, with Dr. Lyons being the personality that he is, that it’s totally open ended. He could decide that’s a good idea.
RT: But there has been no discussion of it yet?
KL: Not that I’m aware of. It’s very possible, though. We will have to wait three years for the spirits to mature. Time will tell.
RT: Your distillery is located in the heart of Lexington, so of course you have bourbon, but you also make Pearse Lyons Reserve, an American single malt. What inspired you to do that?
MC: Dr. Pearse Lyons is Irish and he wanted a malt whiskey in the traditional sense; malt whiskey is part of Lexington’s distilling heritage that has been gone since the start of Prohibition in 1919.
RT: Do you malt your own barley for the single malt?
KL: No, we buy that commercial.
RT: What is the mashbill for the bourbon?
KL: We are 72-13-15. 72 corn, 13 rye, 15 malt. Everyone has to have that little taste of malted barley, because that has the enzyme that’s going to convert the starch.
RT: Whiskey fans are always interested in the physical details of a distillery. Who built your still?
KL: The stills are built by Forsyth’s in Scotland. They are both pot stills. The wash still, the larger of the two, is 5,000 liters and it is heated by a calandria, an external heat source. The spirits still is a 3,200 liter capacity. They’re all copper, the doors are brass, and the spirit safe is highly polished piece of brass.
RT: Could you tell me a bit about how you are aging that and the Town Branch bourbon? Are you using small barrels or the standard 53-gallon barrels? Is it all new oak?
MC: All our bourbon is aged in new American white oak 53 gallons in capacity. This is the law to be called bourbon. We use a medium to heavy roast of the barrels. This gives us that good caramel vanilla notes that come out of the spirit. In interesting aspect to our barrel aging with the Pearse Lyons Reserve is that we use our freshly decanted Bourbon Barrel Ale barrels and fill this with our malt whiskey fresh off the stills. This gives a slightly sweet note and smooth taste.
RT: What is your water source?
K: Lexington water is limestone water, and that’s part of its charm. We do make sure we’ve taken out any chlorine, obviously, that the city might add. But it is limestone water. That was one of the attractions of this area of central Kentucky.