Betting the farm: Joyce Nethery rekindles her passion for distilling at Jeptha Creed

Joyce Nethery at Jeptha Creed
Joyce Nethery is master distiller and CEO of Jeptha Creed. | Photo by Sarah Jane Sanders

In 2013, the Nethery family of Shelby County, Ky., was at a crossroads. Should they continue a fulfilling yet slightly stagnant life as they knew it — with husband Bruce farming the family land and wife Joyce teaching high school chemistry? Or should they bet the farm and do something much more unconventional and risky — like building a bourbon distillery from the ground up?

Kentucky is lucky the Netherys chose the latter, and while Bruce still farms the land, Joyce runs the operations at Jeptha Creed Distillery, serving as CEO and master distiller, while daughter Autumn takes the helm of co-owner and marketing manager. Even son Hunter pitches in, although he’s not 21 yet, helping out in production and farming while he learns the trade. And we hear he even has a knack for harvesting honey — just another perk of owning a farm craft distillery.

Jeptha Creed, which opened in 2016, sits on 64 acres in Shelbyville. Much of that land not taken up by rick houses is used for growing crops that go into the distillery’s spirits, from fruits and grains to Jeptha’s prized ingredient: bloody butcher heirloom corn. Every spirit Jeptha Creed currently makes uses the deep red bloody butcher corn, which was an important decision Joyce made early on. 

With a background in chemical engineering, Joyce has left her teaching days far behind and rekindled her passion for distilling — rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty with powdery grains, sticky sour mash and sweet, corn-forward white dog.

We recently chatted with Joyce about her love of Kentucky bourbon, her family’s fortitude and what it’s like being a new distillery on the block.

The Bourbon Review: What brought you to bourbon?

Joyce Nethery: The thing that brought me to bourbon was Kentucky culture. I am a native Kentuckian, and I’ve always seen the distilleries and experienced bourbon from the outside looking in. 

My background is in chemical engineering, and my husband grew up as a dairy farmer. We wanted to build something for our children that they could use for their careers, and we wanted to incorporate both sets of skills — my husband’s with his agricultural background, and mine with my engineering background.

So a ground-to-glass distillery making bourbon is what we came up with. The whole bourbon culture is his heritage, too. It’s a part of all Kentuckians. 

TBR: How long did it take from idea to distillery?

Jeptha Creed Distillery
Jeptha Creed is located on 64 acres in Shelbyville. | Photo by Sarah Jane Sanders

JN: It did take us a while to make the leap. My husband had been talking about building a distillery for a long time, and he’s the heavy-duty entrepreneur in the family. He’s the one who will jump and then ask how high the cliff is later. So he wanted to build a distillery, and I thought it was a crazy idea. 

I decided he needed some training and found Moonshine University in Louisville. But then he couldn’t go to the class, so I did. And I fell back in love with engineering and copper and everything about it, and I came out of that class with our ground-to-glass concept. And now I have to say he was right. 

All of that happened in January of 2013 when I got onboard, and that’s when we started going. Really, in three-and-half years, we went from, “Hey, let’s do this thing,” to “Hey, we’re open!” It was a rapid pace. 

TBR: What’s the biggest challenge of your job? 

JN: I think the biggest challenge of my job, in the distillery itself, is blending and mingling the barrels to get a consistent product flavor profile. It’s not as straightforward as you think. That’s kind of the most difficult thing going on right now for me as master distiller/master blender. 

In the CEO role, one of the difficult things right now is figuring out when we can ever do events again. We did the whole pandemic pivot and changed things up. We are open, but people keep asking when they can schedule a wedding rehearsal, or can we rent this space out, or when are you doing your Jammin’ at Jeptha again?

My answer is, “Um, no. Not right now.” So right now, handling COVID and the pandemic and how we can open things back up tourism-wise is one of the more difficult things. 

Bloody Butcher's Creed bottle
Bloody Butcher’s Creed is an experimental line. | Courtesy

TBR: What can we expect from Jeptha Creed in 2021 and beyond?

JN: We’ve got some cool stuff coming out. Bloody Butcher’s Creed is my line of experimental bourbons and whiskeys that isn’t on the shelf all the time — they’re one and done. We have one of those editions coming out in about a month, and this is a mash bill we did as an experiment.

We thought, “What if we up the bloody butcher corn in the mash bill?” So I took it up all the way to 90%, with 5% malted rye and 5% malted wheat. Then we aged it in 10-gallon barrels on the property for about two years — actually, it’s about two years and nine months. It’s so cool! It’ll be 100 proof. 

And then even more exciting, in the fall, we are going to be releasing our rye-heavy bourbon Bottled-In-Bond. That one is 75% bloody butcher corn — all estate-grown corn — 20% malted rye and 5% malted barley. It’s so good! I’m so excited for that one. That’ll release Nov. 11, on our five-year anniversary. 

TBR: What differentiates Jeptha Creed from every other distillery in Kentucky?

JN: I think what differentiates us is the farm and the corn. We are a farm craft distillery, and a lot of our innovation is driven by what we grow. The bloody butcher corn has been our starting point.

We’ve been growing lots of different varietals. My husband is going to plant four or five different varietals of heirloom corn this year. We’ve grown a pink, a blue — which I call “Bruce’s blue” — we’ve grown a white now … you know, we’re going to have this whole rainbow of heirloom corn bourbons! 

That is what’s distinguishing us, and then we’re family-owned and women-run.  

TBR: As a newer distillery, how do you deal with criticism — whether it’s a Facebook comment or a product review? Do you take it personal?

JN: Yes, I certainly did when we started. You’re so wrapped up and you’ve got so much invested, and someone goes, “I don’t like it.” It used to really, really crush me. 

But as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize that everybody has different tastebuds, and something one person loves, somebody else is going to go, “Eh.” So I’m kind of reaching a point where I’ll say, “Well, if you don’t like it, I still appreciate you trying it. Thank you for being polite. And I hope you find bourbons that you love.”

TBR: Do you remember the first bourbon you ever tasted?

JN: My grandfather would have bourbon in the kitchen — he cooked a lot — and he also drank a lot of martinis, so there was the olives and vermouth for those. I can’t remember exactly which bourbon it was, but I was a little kid, about 10 years old, and I got to try it. I didn’t like it! 

Now the first one I found out I truly, truly liked — you know, as I’ve gotten older — would be Woodford Reserve. 

TBR: What’s the most prized bottle in your collection?

JN: I don’t have a collection of bourbon from outside our distillery, but my most prized whiskey that I have would be all of them! (Laughs) My most prized bourbons are each individual barrel I have aging out in that barn! That is my favorite!

Joyce and Autumn Nethery
Joyce and daughter Autumn are co-owners of the distillery. | Photo by Sarah Jane Sanders

TBR: As a woman in the whiskey business, do you think you’re treated any differently? 

JN: I probably am somewhat, but I’m too dense to notice it. Throughout my career, I’ve been the only woman in the room many times as a chemical engineer — even in classes at school, 25% women was the max.

So throughout my entire education and career, I’ve never been in the majority from a gender standpoint. I just never let that stop me. I just keep on going, just try to be very knowledgeable and try to be “expert” in the room.

You know, I think it actually goes back to middle school. I’m going to be showing my age here, but women weren’t allowed in shop class, and I was one of the very first girls to get into shop class when they finally opened it up.

There it was noticeable because the girls weren’t allowed to use machines like the drills and saws. We had to do leather-working and make wallets and stuff with leather tools. 

But I was in that class, and maybe that’s where my attitude developed: “I can do the stuff the boys are doing! I can use a saw and the drills and do the woodworking.”

TBR: What’s your advice for other women who might be interested in distilling career?  

JN: I would tell them to go for it. Take whatever opportunity you get to get into the industry, and work and learn and develop your knowledge. Just go for it. Don’t let the whole history of being man-run stop you. It’s time to spread your wings and get into the industry you want. 

Sara Havens has covered the bourbon scene for more than 15 years as a Louisville-based writer and editor, and her work has appeared in various local, regional and national publications. Recently, Havens was one of 10 finalists in the World’s Top Whiskey Taster competition held by the Bardstown Bourbon Co., beating out more than 400 contenders to represent the Kentucky region. Known as The Bar Belle, she maintains her own website all about the bourbon industry and Louisville nightlife scene.