Wilderness Trail Distillery
I was introduced to Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, Kentucky a few years ago as we were meeting with friends in the Bluegrass. Located about 35 miles southwest of Lexington, Wilderness Trail has made herculean strides in whiskey distilling. Chances are, they've even impacted some of your favorite brands.
Yeast is the Wild Card
Even before founders Shane Baker and Dr. Pat Heist began their bourbon-journey, their lives were already intertwined in the whiskey business. Shane's grandmother had met her husband while working in their youth at the Kentucky River Distillery. His grandmother later retired from Stitzel-Weller following a fifty-year career in the industry.
Shane and Pat had met in their youth in a rock band. Taking their passions and knowledge in a new direction, they formed Ferm Solutions in 2006. While most agree that half of a bourbon's flavor comes from the barrel, the remainder comes from the grains, the yeast, and the distilling process. These are bourbon's wild cards. It's interesting to note that nN\early 20% of the world's yeast strains are supplied by Ferm Solutions, and the co-owners are in high-demand for their consulting services. If you've enjoyed a pour from a dark spirit, chances are Shane and Pat have had their hand in it.
With their deep knowledge of fermentation and a collection of proprietary yeast, they took the next step and in 2013 established Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, Kentucky. Today, they produce 2 varieties of bourbon whiskey (a wheated and a high-rye small batch) along with a rye whiskey and vodka. Corn and wheat is sourced from nearby Caverndale Farm; Walnut Grove provides their heirloom rye.
The tour begins in a combination bourbon and cocktail bar, gift shop, and tasting room. We're introduced to the basics of bourbon by our knowledgeable tour guide who holds up bottles full of locally sourced grains used in the whiskeys produced onsite, including a heritage rye variety that is softer and gentler than traditional rye grains used in whiskeys. Heading up a short flight of stairs, we take in the mash room. A unique feature of Wilderness Trail is their utilization of a "sweet mash process." Many common whiskies utilize a "sour mash process", whereby a specified amount of the prior mash is retained as setback to start the next batch - similar in concept to a sourdough starter.
With a sweet mash process, each batch of mash begins with scrubbing and cleaning the mash tubs, followed by heating them to 400 degrees for a few hours to completely disinfect the tub. Then, new mash, water, and fresh yeast are added to the mash for cooking. Legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell shared that everyone has tried a sweet mash once, only to be frustrated by the amount of care and effort involved in the process and the difficulty in keeping a wild yeast spore out of the finished product. Shane and Pat's deep knowledge of yeast has provided them confidence to master the complicated and time-consuming method. The distillery also uses an Infusion Mashing Process where heat and water are gently applied to gelatinize the starches, resulting in a softer and more flavorful distillate for aging.
From the mash room, we head next door to the distillation room. There, you can still see the 250-gallon pot hybrid still that once produced their initial batches of spirits (and is still in use). Production quickly increased, requiring installation of a 40-foot tall 18-inch column still and a second 40-foot tall 36-inch column still. Today, they're distilling about 216 barrels per day. In 2020, Wilderness Trail became a Heritage member of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Membership to this exclusive group requires at least 25,000 barrels in storage. That's a lot of whiskey!
Wilderness Trail is also the first Kentucky bourbon distillery to utilize a clean steam boiler - free of boiler chemicals or flavors - resulting in an exceptionally pure product. Barrels are toasted to a #4 char and filled with 110 proof bourbon distillate and 100 proof rye distillate - some of the lowest in the industry. Six rick houses age the finished product. As of the time of our visit, over 100,000 barrels were quietly aging. Two more aging warehouses were under construction across the road, with plans to keep adding another rickhouse every six months. Now that's growth!
As we toured a rick house, we learned a couple of interesting facts. One, there is no fire suppression equipment inside. Rather, it is hoped through good prevention, disasters can be averted. In addition, our guide pointed out a plumb-bob and line. Found in each of the corners of the warehouse, these provide valuable insight as to the slightest shift (or lean) in the building. Barrels can then be moved inside the rickhouse to bring the building back in plumb. That was interesting - it makes sense - and hopefully disasters can be averted like those at Barton and O.Z. Tyler.
At the edge of the warehousing area are two more rickhouses, identical to the others, but bearing the IJW Whiskey moniker. When I asked the guide about the two warehouses, he shared that Wilderness Trail is a contract distiller for IJW Whiskey (you can find some of IJW's brands, including First Call and McFarlane's at Total Wine).
Throughout the tour, our guide was assisted by Cooper - a black and white cat. We were told that Cooper provides quality assurance for the guests, ensuring guides deliver a stellar experience. Cooper was often found playing underneath the stills, sunning on the rickhouse loading dock, or carefully following guests as he weaved between barrels. With all that, I've worked up a thirst, so we headed back to the gift shop for our tasting.
We returned to where we started in the gift shop and tasting area. Guests are able to order several craft cocktails and flights in addition to the tasting. The barrel-table was set with a barrel-proof rye, their flagship Bottled-in-Bond wheated bourbon, Bottled-in-Bond small batch bourbon (high rye), and a 6-year rendition of their small batch bourbon along with a locally homemade bourbon ball (available for purchase - which we did - these were delish!).
Wilderness Trail Rye Barrel Proof: Our bottle was a low 102 barrel proof rendition, with a mash bill of 56% rye, 33% corn, and 11% malted barley. Like all of WT's products, it is non-chill filtered, allowing more oils and esters to remain in the finished product allowing a great mouthfeel. Rye whiskeys typically mature a little quicker than bourbons; I believe this was a 3-year version. Even so, there was oak and spice up front, but balanced well with butterscotch notes - ideal for an Old Fashioned or Kentucky Mule.
Wilderness Trail Wheated Bottle-in-Bond: I appreciate that when it comes to bourbon, Shane and Pat waited to deliver a Bottled-in-Bond product, requiring adherence to additional standards, including a higher proof (100 proof) and a 4-year age statement. The mash bill is 64% corn, 24% wheat, and 12% malted barley, with the corn and wheat grown locally, and the rye coming from elsewhere in the Commonwealth. This delivers tons of sweet corn-on-the-cob along with honey and spice followed by a light pepper heat. I've shared before that I'd love to see what this tastes with a couple more years of age on it.
Wilderness Trail Small Batch Bottled-in-Bond: Similar to their flagship version, their small batch is a Bottled-in-Bond expression, made from batches of 10-12 barrels. The mash bill here is 64% corn, 24% rye, and 12% malted barley. I'd normally say I'm a wheated bourbon fan instead of a high rye expression, but this one hits my palate nicely. Small Batch brings loads of vanilla, corn, butterscotch, marzipan, and fruits balanced with baking spices. This feels more complex than their wheated bourbon and is my favorite of the two.
Wilderness Trail 6-Year Small Batch Bottled-in-Bond: I wondered what WT's bourbon would taste like with a couple more years added, and my wish has been granted. This was the darkest of the four whiskeys we tasted and was exceedingly rich with vanilla toffee, butterscotch, and layered with warm fruit compote topped with vanilla cream. More vanilla was present on the finish and was balanced with a little spice and toasted oak. My wife, a non-bourbon drinker just "along for the ride", quickly said after she sipped this one, "Oh you have to get a bottle of this. I'd even drink this, it's so good." I couldn't agree more. Thanks for giving me permission!
I've had the pleasure of touring some of the largest and most storied distilleries as well as some of the smallest. It is incredibly humbling to see the brand that Shane and Pat are building, doing things right, and focusing on high-quality bottled-in-bond and longer-aged products than many newer start-ups.
The growth they're experiencing is amazing, as well - a testament to the quality product they're producing. As we watched trusses being installed on two of their newest rickhouses, I can hardly comprehend the growth we were witnessing. Someday, I'm certain we'll visit again and look back on the "early days” of Wilderness Trail. In the meantime, be sure to visit, take it in, and enjoy the quality spirits produced today that are a testament to the legacy being written.