How Peerless Took the Path of Most Resistance to Their First Bourbon in a Century

The first Peerless Bourbon in a century is being released this weekend. Photo Courtesy Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
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Caleb Kilburn has been waiting for this weekend since the day Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. opened their doors. On Saturday, June 22nd, the distillery will release its first bourbon in 102 years.

Peerless, founded in 1889 by pharmacist Henry Kraver, was revived in 2014 by his great-great grandson Corky Taylor and Corky’s son Carson. They were one of the first distilleries to obtain an original distilled spirits plant number when reopening, operating under DSP KY-50. One of the family’s first hires was Kilburn, an eastern Kentucky dairy farm boy who was then working on his chemistry degree at Morehead State University.

Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn stands in the warehouse he helped build at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn stands in the warehouse he helped build at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Before the Ground Floor

Kilburn had been interested in the science behind bourbon for years, taking classes at Distilled Spirits Epicenter and lingering after distillery tours to bother guides with questions about who he might be able to shadow. As he began to build knowledge about the industry, his mentors recommended he find a position at a start-up distillery so he could learn the business from the beginning.

“I like to say that there are people that get in on the ground floor of a business, but I was here when we poured the concrete,” says Kilburn of his first days at Peerless. “I sawed and stacked lumber on the second story of this warehouse, top floor, black tar roof, no ventilation, concrete dust in the air.”

Eventually, Kilburn’s role grew from shadowing and building to managing the mechanical crews installing pipes, boilers, and more. “Even though I was the youngest guy on the job site and supposed to just be here to learn, I was really bad at letting mistakes happen,” he says sheepishly. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut if I saw a valve that was going in backwards, or being put somewhere an operator couldn’t get to it. Things like that, different mechanical nuances and pipe literacy that I picked up growing up in a similar environment on the farm.”

So at 23 years old, after helping plan the installs for distilling equipment, process piping, and more, Kilburn literally wrote the manual on how to make whiskey at Kentucky Peerless. “For every kernel of grain that needs to go through the process, every pump, every level switch, every sequence that runs this plant, I was able to convince them that I was the one to run it and I needed to write it out,” he remembers.

“There hasn’t been, to our knowledge, any place since Prohibition ended, that the distiller has been involved in setting out process pipe, the philosophy of how things were going to be distilled here, and the building itself,” says Cordell Lawrence, Director of Global and Market Strategy for Peerless.

Kilburn started his full time position at Peerless the Monday after his graduation. A few months later, on March 4th, 2015, the distillery barreled their first whiskey in 98 years. Their first release, in the spring of 2017, was a two-year-old rye that hit shelves just in time to break the company’s 100 year drought.

The label on the Peerless Bourbon bottle spells out each step the distillery takes to maintain their quality. Photo Courtesy Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
The label on the Peerless Bourbon bottle spells out each step the distillery takes to maintain their quality. Photo Courtesy Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn

The distillery cemented their trust in Kilburn last Christmas. He’d been working under the title “Head Distiller,” believing that Master was a term best left for industry icons. At the company’s holiday party, though, his gift from the Taylors was a stainless steel sign reading “Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn.”

Although Kilburn was surprised, it wasn’t a shock to most, given that he’d had been leading distilling operations from the start. “But ever since we started, we’ve been talking about ‘when the bourbon comes out, when the bourbon comes out,’ and its always been this monumentous occasion way off on the horizon. And now that its here of course there are some nerves, but I’m confident in the product we’re putting together. And real excited too.”

That Peerless Bourbon is finally being released this weekend, and the product that they’ve put together has taken every bit of time and energy the crew has had to give in the last four years.

Each bottle of Peerless Bourbon reads “Non-Chill Filtered, Strictly Sweet Mash, No Water Added, Barrel Proof.” Lower on the label, you’ll see “…distilled, bottled, and aged in the Louisville, Kentucky Bourbon District.” Each of these qualifiers is inextricably linked, with each making the next possible.

By using a sweet mash process, Peerless is able to avoid adding water. By bottling at barrel proof, they’re able to use non-chill filtration. And by keeping their processes at a small, craft distillery they’ve built to produce only 10-12 barrels a day, they’re able to maintain the control and cleanliness they need to use sweet mash.

“Sweet mashing sets the stage for complexity every step of the way,” says Lawrence. While the majority of bourbons on the shelf today are made with a sour mash, some newer craft distilleries are choosing to change things up with their whiskey. Kilburn made the call early on that Peerless Bourbon would be one of them.

The still at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
The still at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

“Strictly Sweet Mash”

Painted on the wall at Kentucky Peerless is the statement “Strictly Sweet Mash.” In the 19th century, early distillers used “sour mashing” to ensure a consistent batch of whiskey every time. It involves using a bit of the set back spent grain, or “starter” from a prior cook to give the next batch a boost into fermentation.

“Granted, that starter will have some bacteria and microorganisms, but by starting with a larger population of a healthier yeast than what was native you were able to kind of hedge your bets and out-compete any contamination,” explains Kilburn. “Its similar to using a starter in sourdough bread. This process is quite resilient, very hardy, so 150 years ago, it absolutely made sense and it was the best way of doing it. It gets the fermentation going quicker and it produces a very standard flavor.”

“But technology has come lot further since then,” he elaborates, explaining why he chose to diverge from more established methods of distillation. “When you talk about the brands that were established just after Prohibition, their main focus hasn’t been to innovate, it’s been to maintain a flavor profile for the good of the brand. And that’s what they should be doing! But when you’re talking about a startup like Peerless, I can take advantage of all the new technology.”

One aspect of that new technology allows Peerless to receive shipments of stable, dry, pure yeast to introduce into each batch of their bourbon. “In the modern era, I can cook that fresh corn, fresh rye, fresh barley, use no backset, and now I have a stable source of clean yeast. It’s the strength of the sour mash without the hindrance of the bacteria that’s being contaminated into the batch. It’s going to produce a very sweet, floral beer with all first generation ingredients that then is going to produce a very sweet, floral distillate,” says Kilburn.

Sweet mashing does leave less room for error, as the bacteria present in setback for sour mash aren’t accounted for in their process. Peerless has to stay spotless in order to avoid introducing these contaminants to their distillate. “Battleship ready,” laughs Lawrence. “That’s a Corky term.”

While sour mashing can be compared to sourdough bread,¬†that flavor we love in our French toast might not be as pleasant in a bourbon. “[Sour mash distillate] is going to have a distinct soured, gritty taste, and its not quite as appealing in distilling. So to clean that up, you have to distill at a higher proof,” warns Kilburn.

“The higher proof you distill at, the more neutral the whiskey will taste, and the more water you’ll have to add to it to get it down to your barrel strength,” he says. “So if you distill something all the way to 160 and then have to add water, it’s going to be robbed of a ton of character. You’ll be drinking a lot of ethanol and not a lot of flavorful compound. In contrast, the lower the proof you distill at, the more grain character and the more flavor you’re going to have.”

By law, bourbon must come off the still below 160 proof and enter the barrel no higher than 125. As he’s using a sweet mash process, Kilburn can push the envelope below 130 proof as his whiskey leaves the still. “[The lower proof] adds a ton of grain character in the whiskey, a ton of fermentation and floral, and also reduces the amount of water I have to add [to the barrel]. It’s kind of a two fold increase in flavor,” he says.

Because Peerless doesn’t need to add water after the bourbon leaves the barrel, they are able to bottle at barrel proof. And because they’re able to bottle at barrel proof, they have no need for chill filtration. Chill filtration cools the bourbon down to solidify and remove the oils present prior to bottling. These oils can separate from the solution and become cloudy in the bottle if they’re not removed, making the final product less aesthetically pleasing.

“Chill filtration is really treating a side effect. With barrel strength whiskey… the fats, oils, lipids that are extracted from the process and pulled out of the oak are going to remain in solution,” Kilburn says. “In extreme cases when they’re very cold your whiskey will get a little cloudy, but that’s very rare. When you add a significant amount of water to whiskey, those fats are no longer happy in the solution, and can even coagulate together in a process called flocking. For lack of a better term, it looks like a dust bunny in the bottom of a bottle.”

“But when you take these fats out of whiskey, you’re robbing it of so much flavor and so much character and a ton of mouthfeel. Chill filtration arises out of necessity when you’re diluting your whiskey. By staying at barrel strength, we don’t have to worry about it for Peerless Bourbon,” he says.

And so, all the promises on their label are made possible by the Peerless policy for a sweet mash. “There’s nothing wrong with sour mash,” stresses Kilburn. “There’s a litany of amazing sour mash whiskeys. Ours is just different.”

Barrels at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. made in collaboration with Kelvin Cooperage. Photo Courtesy Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

The Price of Quality

One of the criticisms Peerless is used to facing is the high cost of their product relative to others on the market. Their three-year old rye whiskey, which came out last fall, is priced around $95.

“Peerless is a small scale distillery – what I’ll do in a year, Jim Beam will do in a shift,” says Kilburn. “What we’re trying to achieve here isn’t the most product, or the most cost effective product. That went out the door the minute we started talking sweet mash and low barrel entry proof.¬†Letting the water mature with the whiskey is going to pull out better flavors, and more flavors, and at the end of that maturation we’re not going to add a drop of water.”

“If you barrel at 125 proof and then dilute to 80 proof bourbon, 36% of your final bottle is going to be water – water that didn’t touch the grains, the barrel, any of it. Choosing to go in at lower proof costs us 17% more in barrels, which is one of the most expensive links in the chain of making whiskey. So we’re not going to be the most financially efficient, we’re not going to be the biggest, but none of those things matter in relation to quality, which is what we’re after,” says Kilburn.

Every step of the Peerless process of craft distilling has been put in place by Kilburn to ensure that their first bourbon in a century maintains the legacy left by Henry Kraver and kept alive by his descendants. Peerless Bourbon will be four years old, bottled at barrel proof (around 109), and will cost around $75.

“The bourbon is going to be scaled back in the terms of auxiliary grains – the corn is the star of the show,” he says of the mash bill. “Between 10-20% rye and 9-15% malted barley, without getting too specific. It’s very rich, and earthier than expected.”

Fans of the brand can be the first to grab their bottles of Peerless Bourbon this Saturday, June 22nd, at 10 AM at the distillery at 120 N 10th Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. In the weeks following, Peerless Bourbon will hit shelves in Kentucky first, in limited quantities.