Peerless Crowns Caleb Kilburn their Master Distiller

Caleb Kilburn, Master Distiller. Courtesy of Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Caleb Kilburn isn’t used to his new job title just yet. “Hi, this is Caleb, Head — or I guess Master Distiller now, at Peerless,” he corrected himself as he answered our congratulatory call. Just yesterday morning, after holding the title “Head Distiller” for four years, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. announced that Kilburn would take on the title of Master Distiller.

“I used to spend a considerable amount of time during interviews differentiating between the two titles… this is the first time I’ve ever actually introduced myself as a Master Distiller,” says Kilburn, who at just 27 years old is the youngest Master Distiller in Kentucky.

He was hired at Peerless while he was still in college, after the brand was revived in 2014 by fourth generation distiller and Chairman Corky Taylor. Taylor’s great-great-grandfather Henry Kraver owned the original distillery from 1896-1917 in Henderson County, Kentucky. After a false start at retirement, Taylor and his son Carson decided to bring back his family’s brand as a grain-to-glass distillery in Louisville, KY.

Kilburn joined the Taylor family as one of the original team members at the distillery, but was quick to correct anyone who mistakenly used the “Master” title to refer to him, instead choosing to be called “Head Distiller.” He felt the term Master Distiller should only be used describe industry leaders, heroes, and mentors—and had no thought of changing his business card any time soon.

“Honestly, it was something that was presented to me. [The Taylors and I] have always been in agreement that it’s something down the road. We have such a large respect for what it means to be a master in the industry, and its not something I felt I deserved right out of the gate.”

But the Taylors felt differently this year. While the bourbon world is only finding out the news today, Kilburn has been keeping the secret for several weeks. The title was Kilburn’s Christmas gift, presented at the Peerless company holiday party in the form of a stainless steel sign reading “Caleb Kilburn, Master Distiller.”

“They sprung it on me surrounded by family and friends – but I didn’t think anything of it, just oh, my parents got invited to the Christmas party,” he remembers. After cutting open the unassuming cardboard box, he was overwhelmed with emotion. “My mind went totally blank—I definitely choked up,” he recalls.

“Caleb is without question a total team player, and his dedication and commitment to producing a quality product is unmatched. I am honored to announce Caleb Kilburn as our Master Distiller,” said Corky Taylor.

Peerless credits Kilburn for the distillation methods that differentiate their whiskey from many others on the market: a sweet mash rather than the usual sour, a low barrel entry proof of just 107, non-chill filtration, and bottling at barrel proof.

But Kilburn, in turn, credits his early industry success to the people around him. “I’ve had such a blessed journey, and there have been so many people along the way who have taken an interest in teaching someone who was eager to learn,” he says. “I’m incredibly humbled by all this.”

While Peerless Rye has won both industry and national acclaim since its release in 2017, we can finally expect the first Peerless Bourbon, distilled in March of 2015, to arrive late spring of this year. When we pressed Kilburn for a release date, he just laughed.

“The beauty of it is, the whiskey is gonna tell me when its ready. People question me all the time about the date the bourbon is coming out, but its going to tell me,” he says.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.