Updated July 18, 2016
With Their New Distillery, Wilderness Trail Is Set To Become A Leader In Bluegrass Craft Distilling
By Richard Thomas
Danville has long struck me as a strangely out of the way place. A lovely college town and local center, it’s also miles removed from a convenient interstate exit, and thus a little troublesome to reach, this despite being the terminus of the Wilderness Road of the frontier, pioneering days. It’s a spot visitors are most likely to come across on a Sunday drive or exploring the Bluegrass’s scenic byways, so if a distillery is going to be there, Wilderness Trail is perhaps the name best suited to the locale.
Wilderness Trail doesn’t have a bourbon out yet, but odds are pretty good that your car has sipped on their products, even if you haven’t. This is because whereas many micro-distilleries are started by people with little or no experience in commercial distilling, the people behind Wilderness Trail have loads of know-how, earned through their earlier company, Ferm Solutions.
Micro-biologist Pat Heist and mechanical engineer Shane Baker pooled their skills and founded Ferm Solutions in 2006 as a consulting and services company for those making alcohol for fuel or drink. Having made that venture a success, the pair set out to make their own whiskey, and started with a base of knowledge and resources any start-up should envy, and some call upon. Ferm Solutions recreated the antique yeast used by near neighbors Limestone Branch Distillery, extracting the DNA from a piece in Bardstown’s Oscar Getz Museum.
“I’ve seen things go wrong that Jimmy Russell, in his hundred years of life, has never thought of,” said Shane Baker, now also Master Distiller at Wilderness Trail.
Relying upon self-financing, Wilderness Trail opened its doors in 2013, but it wasn’t long before they were already looking for more space. They bought a farm west of Danville in late 2014, roughly a year after their initial opening. The new property was initially for the construction of a rickhouse. Yet the place was also nestled into picturesque and rolling green country and adorned with an antebellum red brick farmhouse, so both its space and its attractiveness made it a prime spot for a bigger distillery.
Making The Bourbon We Like
When I visited in June 2016, Wilderness Trail has just gone operational at their new facility, and were making only their fourth production run that day. Alongside their original pot still is a new, 40-foot Vendome-made column still. Despite what is typically a two year waiting list,* Vendome’s name adorns much of the equipment at the distillery, not just the stills, but the many of the tanks and fermenters as well.
“[Vendome is] worth the investment,” said Jerod Smith of Wilderness Trail. ” You get what you pay for.”
Beyond the Vendome copper and stainless steel, some of the other distillery components were acquired even closer to home. The boiler was made by Danville’s own Sellers Manufacturing, who appear regularly at Wilderness Trail to offer some in-person fine tuning of their machinery. Beyond that, being able to draw on Ferm Solutions for yeast and lab resources is also a major help.
What Baker and Heist are doing in their brand new facility is turning out whisky made “the way we like to drink it,” as Baker put it. That means sweet mash bourbon for the most part, made from a mash bill of 64% corn, 24% wheat and 12% malted barley. They have been producing their bourbon out for 2 1/2 years now, but now the expansion has increased output from 1 barrel per day up to 12 barrels. They anticipate doing a single barrel, cask strength release when their stock reaches about four years of age, and then nudging things up to five years on average. Eventually either a small batch or a bottled-in-bond (BiB) release will be added to the lineup.
Much of the expanded production, in fact, will go into that projected small batch or BiB bourbon. “We will always make our single barrel in the pot still, to keep those congeners we chose our yeast especially to get,” said Baker.
This commitment to quality reflects not just the skills and preferences of Heist and Baker, making the bourbon they would want to drink, but also that they have the luxury of patience. Wilderness Trail has a bourbon barrel-aged rum and a vodka out in the now, but they won’t be doing moonshine or small barrel whiskey to bridge the next couple of years. For the thing they really want to make, they are willing to wait.
According to a colleague of mine, noted consultant Dave Pickerell once said it was foolish to “try to out Maker’s Maker’s Mark,” but in going for single barrel, cask strength, traditionally aged wheated bourbon, that is pretty much what Wilderness Trail is doing. They are also carrying Kentucky’s craft whiskey scene, step by step, beyond legal moonshine as they approach that release date for their first bourbon.
* Correction: After publication, Vendome Copper And Brass Works of Louisville reported their current wait list is running at only 10 to 12 months.