Wilderness Trail isn’t your typical craft distillery. That’s probably not even the right designation. But they’re not heritage* either … they’re really something else.
The team behind Wilderness
Trace Trail knows fermentation like nobody else – consulting for everybody else is their primary business. Founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist provide fermentation education and analysis plus yeast management through their primary company, Ferm-Solutions. Which is where they get both the expertise and funding for their bourbon distillery.
Located just outside Danville, KY, the distillery looks like an industrial park dropped incongruously around a country farm house. The farm house, it turns out, is the visitors center. It’s quite quant and historic, which isn’t a match for much else about the operation.
Upon entering the visitors center, I was overwhelmed by the odor of a “bourbon scented” candle burning in another room. That’s a pain point with me personally – artificial scents are designed with ‘stickiness’ and to reduce your sense of smell … why have that when you’ve put so much money, time and passion into the flavor of your product?
Fortunately, we quickly went back outside where our tour guide, Jerod, gave an overview of the property and a brief history of company.
Then into the distillery we went. Jerod explained more about Ferm-Solutions while we observed operations from behind windows.
Ferm-Solutions does very technical work regarding yeast fermentation. Jerod said that for some of their customers, they’re asked to achieve just a 1% increase in ethanol yield and they might spend weeks to accomplish that. But that’s for the fuel alcohol customers. They also provide yeast and fermentation analysis for undisclosed bourbon distilleries.
(A lot of bourbon brands have stories about the source of their yeast, their recipe, or the process that are … less than true. For more on that, check out Fred Minnick’s book Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.)
They also research non-traditional sources for fermentation like greek yogurt by-products and Peep factory waste. (Not kidding – apparently the left-over bits of the goo that becomes Peep which gets cleaned off the machines and the floor ferments really well.)
But that’s Ferm-Solutions. Wilderness Trail is the next room with the spirit-making equipment. As soon as we walked in, I was struck by the spotlessness of the distillery. I’ve never seen one so clean and dry. They are fastidious about preventing contamination.
Then we walked up a flight of stairs to get a look inside the cooker, fermenters and beer well. It being a Saturday, the cooker and beer well were empty but there were three fermenters happily bubbling away.
Having in been in a lot of bourbon distilleries, I can tell you that their fermenting mash moves a little bit differently than anyone else’s. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a certain consistency and speed to the bubbling that struck me.
The aroma is, as expected, the sweet smell of bourbon mash. Wilderness Trail uses a very high wheat recipe, so it’s a bit sweeter than others but is surprisingly low in the fruit and floral notes.
After a 3 to 4 day fermentation, the beer is sent to a dizzyingly complex still setup:
I actually lost track of which stills get used for the vodka, rum and bourbon. I’m hoping to go back and get a video of Jerod explaining the process again.
Then, still in the same room, we have barrel filling and bottling:
There are two rickhouses on the property, one is two-story and is currently full and the other is five-story and just got its first barrels this week! We didn’t get to go in them because they’re still waiting on occupancy licensing, but we were told that’s in the works.
Back to the visitors center for our tasting. I got a little confused because the sign with the arrow for the tasting room points in the wrong direction, but I got there eventually.
The tasting is a awkward because Jerod didn’t have any help and had to pour and pass out samples as he talked. But everyone pitched in to distribute the samples.
We got to try their vodka and rum; the bourbon and rye are a few years away. Both are very full-flavored spirits. That actually makes the vodka hard to review because it’s outside of category. Both were well received by our group, though. I’ll have separate posts with tasting notes.
One thing to note about their forthcoming whiskeys – the Wilderness Trail team are trained scientists and whiskey enthusiasts. They’re tracking crazy amounts of data including hour-by-hour temperature readings at multiple points on each floor of the warehouses. Their bourbon will be released as a single barrel and they hope to have an on-line system where consumers can enter in the barrel serial number and learn everything about it’s origin – dates, times, temperatures, distillation specifics and probably more.
After the tasting, we hit the gift shop, which is awkwardly distributed across two small rooms. Many items weren’t priced so I think a few purchases didn’t happen as a result. There’s the expected logo-ed items but mostly it’s about the spirits in bottle which matched the vibe of the whole experience.
Overall, it’s a great experience especially for people with a little bit more background knowledge about bourbon. They’re extremely transparent about their process and if you have a very technical question they’ll happily answer it. (Be prepared for a long answer.)
Beyond the scented candle issue, the only downside is the location. They’re way out there:
If you’re really into bourbon, want to complete the KY Craft Bourbon Trail®, or even just find yourself passing within a 30 minute drive, I’d definitely recommend stopping in. Jerod’s passion is infectious, his depth of knowledge is fantastic and the production is legit.
One suggestion: if you can time it, shoot for a weekday or the first tour on a Saturday. They’re more about production than guest services, and I suspect they could get overwhelmed with even a small crowd.
* “Heritage” is the insider name for the primary KY Bourbon Trail® (e.g. the “Heritage” trail), including especially Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.
Wilderness Trail Distillery
4095 Lebanon Rd
Danville, KY 40422
Tours start on the hour.
Gift Shop & Tastings