After my Starbucks sojourn, I returned to Jeptha Creed five minutes before my tour start. I hadn’t been informed where to go, but there seemed to be a cluster of people with anticipatory expressions near some barn doors, so I figured that was the place.
At 4pm on the nose, feedback split the noise of the crowd, followed by a tour start announcement. For some reason, they were calling the 3:45pm and 4pm tours together; I’m not sure what had happened during my absence to cause that. There was no ticket checking, but that was probably just first day kinks and easily forgivable.
Through the doors, we were escorted into what seemed to be a home kitchen:
I think in the long term they’ll try to hold cooking classes but with the coffeemaker, visible trash and piles of boxes from the cupcakes and country ham biscuits it felt more like we had wandered into the staff break room. There were some folding chairs, so we sat. Only 12 people had come in which left 6 empty seats.
A rather frustrated lady with a few companions tried to come in, explaining that their tickets were for 5:45pm (the distillery only stays open until 6pm, so I’m not sure how that was going to work) and she could see plenty of extra seats. Impressively, the tour guide did an admirable job of handling the situation and calming the woman down by explaining that there were people with tickets for our tour who were on their way, which actually turned out to be true.
I should mention here that our tour guide was the best thing about the experience. She had high energy, smiled, gave clear directions, told a lot of jokes (most of which unfortunately fell flat, probably due to the pervasive frustration from the long wait times) and interacted well with her tour guests.
BUT she had a microphone with waist speaker which she did not use properly. Rather than put the microphone band over her head as it was designed, she left it loose around her neck, so every time she turned her head we lost the ability to hear her and when she turned back we got a jolt of feedback.
Having resolved the issue with the frustrated woman, she came to the front of the room, gave a little overview, and then had us watch a 5 minute or so video.
The video needs be skipped. Everything in it was covered elsewhere on the tour and the TVs were positioned high and close, so everyone had to crane their necks to watch it:
The video felt like a checklist of buzzwords:
- Making old fashioned new again
- We do it differently here
- Grain to glass
There are 1,300 distilleries in the United States. 99.9% of them use those buzzwords.
The one actual stand-out element is their use of bloody butcher corn which they grow on the property.
Video over, we filed out the kitchen’s back door and onto a large patio overlooking a lawn. We listened to a few minutes about the history of the family – which was actually interesting. They’re of Scotch descent and legitimately trace distilling back through their ancestry.
It would have been a great opportunity to take in the Kentucky country air since there wasn’t anything to look at except the grass and a tree line … if not for the cigarette and cigar smoke. Seriously, that’s part of the tour.
As we were walking toward the distillery door, I realized the wooden tables and rocking chairs were plastic. That summed up a lot of the experience.
Right at the distillery door is a Model T:
It’s gorgeous. It’s also entirely random.
You know how a good bourbon should be complex but integrated? All of the flavors balanced and in harmony? And how a lesser bourbon can have a lot of flavors but be disorganized – sweet, then smoky, then spicy – just a jumble? That’s what this felt like. Look, old thing! Look, new thing! We have a Model T so we must be authentic!
Inside the distillery there’s a little grain display and the tour guide passed around an ear of their bloody butcher corn for people to touch and get a good look at. That was pretty cool and something I’ve not seen done anywhere else.
The distillery itself is in two rooms – the grain storage room with hammer mill just outside and the fermentation, distillation and bottling room. Before getting to the equipment, we got an overview of the process:
Then we walked up a flight of stairs to look down into the cooker, fermenter and beer well. They even let you taste the mash.
The stills are from Vendome and are impressive to behold.
We got a good explanation of their two different distilling methods – column for vodka, pot for moonshine and bourbon. If you can only go to one bourbon distillery and want to see the difference between those two styles of distillation, I might actually recommend this tour.
Bruce, one of the owners, happened to be filling a barrel while we were there! (Of course, he had been sitting next to that barrel and waiting the whole time …)
We got to taste the new spirit as the barrel was filling. They distill to about 140-145 proof then gauge to 115 proof for barrel entry. The corn is dominant but there are a lot of surprising florals, too. They didn’t mention what yeast strain they use, but I think they’ve picked a good one.
Before leaving the distillery room, we had a photo op with the first bourbon legally distilled in Shelby County since prohibition. (There are 120 counties in Kentucky and over 3,000 counties in the United States. How many times are we going to hear that line?)
Then on to the tasting room. Or not.
To get to the tasting room (“The Clubhouse”) we had to go back through the main area of the visitor’s center and past the bar. The group ahead of us hadn’t finished yet, so there was an awkward shuffle as they tried to come out and we tried to go in. It might have been possible if not for the thirty people crowding the bar trying to get drinks.
The tasting wasn’t ready and samples were still coming out as we went in:
The acoustics in the clubhouse made it absolutely impossible to hear the tour guide, so I led my own tasting. (Seriously, I heard nothing she said in there.)
The vodka tastes like several other “craft” vodkas that I’ve tried. It’s not so much flavorful as it is unclean. It’s heavy with corn, ethanol and pesticides and has a weird candied apple note that turns into an almost cider vinegar and nail polish.
The moonshine is similar to the vodka but fruitier and rougher. It’s primarily corn, apples, peaches and movie-theater butter. It’s hot and bitter on both the palate and the finish with more apple cider, white pepper, nail polish. But hey, it’s shine.
In an ending twist worthy of a great pulp novel, I actually enjoyed the flavored moonshines.
One more key difference in Jeptha Creed’s favor is that they don’t use any artificial ingredients – no fake colors, no fake flavors – in any of their products. That’s a stark contrast to most flavored moonshines which are basically grain-neutral spirit, food coloring, corn syrup and Kool-aid.
The lemon moonshine has legit lemon – you can see the pulp floating in the liquid. And it’s not too sweet. You can taste the hooch and the lemon. It’d be great from the freezer on a hot day.
The honey moonshine is the same way – sweet but not too much, balanced well with the underlying alcohol. The honey is from the farm, too, and contributes a nice floral character.
I might be willing to revise my ‘never flavored moonshine’ policy for these two. (But only if someone else is buying.)
The whole experience lasted 45 minutes which is a good length but there was no conclusion. Or maybe there was but no one could hear it. We all just kind of filed out back into the visitor’s center. I felt a little bad that there was no applause; I think our guide did an admirable job given the rough circumstances.
As I walked to the exit, I noticed the bartenders still mixing with lackluster enthusiasm. They seemed bored. The staff at the ticket counter and the gift shop registers were the same. The place was packed and ripe for excitement but it wasn’t there. Everything gave off frustration and boredom. The employees might as well have been working at a Walmart instead of a bourbon distillery’s grand opening.
I stand by my assertion from part 1 – it’s like the Cracker Barrel of bourbon distilleries. It has everything you’d expect and nothing you wouldn’t, so there’s no risk of offending anybody. It’s generic and comfortable. The employees are working a job and that’s it. The hospitality found at so many other Kentucky distilleries just isn’t there. The guest experience seemed to be an afterthought. The gift shop had their logo just slapped on everything even tangential to bourbon. The bar is a joke.
I expect it’ll do well with the RV crowd and they’ll get some drop-ins from bourbon trail tourists traveling I-64. But I don’t think it’s going to be significant within the bourbon enthusiast community.
EDIT: I’ve been asked several times if I’ll give Jeptha Creed another chance. Yes, I think so but it’ll probably be at least six to nine months. The biggest overall issue that I have with them is that the owners don’t appear to care about their employees or their guests. They spent lots of money on the distillery, on their branding, on all the disorganized “stuff” with their logo on it in the gift shop, on the video at the start of the tour and the like but there appears to have been no thought given to or money spent on things like the tour path, the tasting room, the acoustics or even staff training. Everything feels designed by an anonymous corporate marketing group to maximize how much visitors spend – but not to inspire passion in their employees. One good consultant (and there are many available) would have made the grand opening a much better experience for everyone. It’s in weird contrast to the extraordinary amount of care they put into their products. We’ll see if things change over time.
Jeptha Creed Distillery
500 Gordon Lane
Shelbyville, KY 40065
Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 6pm