A Peerless Flavor

12/14/2018

 

All good things must come to an end, but all great things have a way of coming back again.

Take Jurassic Park and fanny packs — and Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Born in the middle of the Gilded Age and Second Industrial Revolution, Peerless holds a special place in Kentucky’s whiskey history. And it’s mixing 20th century traditions with 21st century innovations.

Henry Kraver opened the original distillery in Henderson in 1889 and it quickly became part of the booming bourbon scene. In 1917, the company was producing 200 barrels a week and expanded its markets to Chicago and St. Louis.

World War I and Prohibition eventually forced the distillery and several others to shut down. After Henry’s daughter Helena married, the Kravers became the Taylors and the family sought out other entrepreneurial ventures, according to Peerless Sensory Specialist (and impromptu historian) John Wadell.

But when you grow up surrounded by whiskey memorabilia and storied tales of your family’s Kentucky rye, it’s hard not to be enticed. Corky Taylor, Kraver’s great-grandson, and his son Carson are bringing those stories back to life.

Today, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. is housed in the largest warehouse downtown Louisville has to offer, with 2,000 barrels on site, Wadell said. The whiskey brand bought and renovated the space in 2014 and it officially opened in 2015, under its original Kentucky Distilled Spirits Plant Number: DSP-KY-50

“We’re kind of coming full circle and we’re celebrating the historic distilleries,” Wadell said. “We’re the western anchor of Whiskey Row now.”

The restored brand has committed to producing a spirit that is authentically Peerless. Instead of buying stock whiskey to speed up its release, Peerless opted to age its own until it was ready — supplementing its venture with a moonshine side project.

Through the birth, death and revival of Peerless, one thing has remained constant: quality.

“We just really wanted to create something that was special and if you do it without making it, then it's all just marketing,” Peerless Head Distiller Caleb Kilburn said. “That's why in the production process, I'll be first to tell you we're not businessmen.”

Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. isn’t made up of businessmen. It’s made up of family. There isn’t a top-down business model because Corky Taylor sees everyone as a co-worker on the same playing field.

“That’s something Corky’s big on,” Kilburn said. “No one works for him, everyone works with him.”

That sort of freedom in the workplace is what allows Kilburn to experiment with different batches. His latest passion project is Peerless Dimensions, a single barrel program that lets people buy unique whiskey in smaller, cost effective batches.

Dimensions has a special grading process based on Kilburn’s own “mythical flavor wheel” where he records individual flavor notes during a barrel’s aging process.

“It is very much something I dreamed up,” Kilburn said.

Breakthru sat down with Kilburn to talk Peerless old and new.

Are you using new Peerless recipes? 

Caleb Kilburn: Correct. As a distiller, I love it because I'm not handcuffed to a particular set of traditions or a particular recipe. It’s kind of a changing of the guard where their first act as distiller is to try to replicate their predecessor's work. Change isn't viewed favorably. When you go to the shelf and grab a heritage brand, you always want it to taste like that heritage brand. But starting a clean slate for us, I was able to really create some unique notes, some unique characteristics in our whiskey that I think were all the much better for it.

How would to describe the Peerless flavor?

A lot of our whiskeys are kind of all in on the spice, all in on that very peppery note and very prominent in oak, but there's not going to be a whole lot of definition beyond that. I really wanted to create something that's going to be a lot more balanced. Bringing in a lot of caramels, vanillas, fruits, florals — things that are more commonly associated with bourbon or maybe even Japanese whiskey. I wanted to bring some of those flavors and characteristics into the rye designation.

As far as the actual taste of the product, there's going to be a lot of sweetness, a lot of caramels, a lot of vanillas, baking spices, balanced out with some sweet oak and some spice. You still have that very nice rye pepper pop, but it's not a harsh pop. It's more of a very grassy, very earthy complex.

 

What’s happening with Peerless Dimensions single barrel program?

We love it when we can get a liquor store or a restaurant or bar to come in and select a barrel to share with their patrons. But a 36- or a 37-case commitment's big. I've noticed that we were losing out on a lot of different accounts that just couldn't handle the volume of 36 or 37 cases but love the idea, flavor, everything about a single barrel of Peerless. So I selected 15 barrels that we've busted up and spread around the country. They’re just a single barrel experience of the case at the time, or a bottle at the time.

How did the program come together?

Everyone has their own flavor wheel. I have the one that makes sense to me and luckily, I've been able to communicate that to John and other distillers at the distillery. We’re the ones who grade each barrel.

When I’m grading barrels, I want to kind of assess the first nose, let it open a little bit. Second nose, I taste, then a second taste, and the finish. Generally, those are the categories I look at when I'm grading the barrels. Once we do that, we figure out where we would put the dominant portions of that barrel. Smell it, taste it and if it kind has this reoccurring maple note throughout, I would rank that as an S, because it would be a sweet barrel, or if it was one that was particularly spicy and earthy, I would give it an E for earth. If it was sometimes very floral or very fruity, I'd give it an F. So I just divide it up into thirds and then there are all sorts of different subcategories.

We’re mingling batches and bringing them together, so it's very well rounded and very well balanced. When I'm doing the single barrel, it'd be boring if it tasted exactly like our small batch. I like to showcase those individual portions of the flavor wheel instead and find a barrel that could remind you of toffee, or maybe I find one that's just pure sweet and spicy oak. I find individual notes, kind of these Easter egg barrels, and showcase them. Now they have to be ultra-high quality on its own to be balanced enough and high enough quality to stand alone, and I have the benefit of mingling, but usually they’ll showcase that one note, or that one special quality. 

 
All images courtesy of Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
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