Oldham’s sole distillery sees growth, welcomes more distilleries

Oldham County’s first, and only, distillery isn’t interested in expanding their operation across acres of land but rather becoming comfortable in their operations and focusing on themselves.

Steve Thompson, president and majority owner of Kentucky Artisan Distillery, said while the distillery’s business plan and goals have changed over the past several years, they’re right where they want to be.

“What comes next? I think for us it’s basically to continue to innovate what we’re currently doing,” Thompson said.

What the distillery is currently doing can be boiled down to four parts, he explained.

Perhaps not surprising, one part is distilling alcohol, another is the distillery’s barrel warehouses, a third part is their bottling operating and the fourth part, which is continuing to grow, is the distillery’s tour center.

Thompson said the distillery now staffs 23 people, will be building their fourth barrel warehouse in the coming months and estimates the distillery produces 3,500 barrels of whiskey a year.

Additionally, the distillery will soon put their first homemade whiskey out onto the market: Billy Goat Strut, a whiskey that combines the spicy rye whiskies of Kentucky and the aromatic Canadian whiskies from the north.

Jade Peterson, the distillery’s recently crowned master distiller, has overseen the creation of the whiskey.

“I think it’s a good product, we’ve had a lot of good feedback from all the tours that we have here,” Peterson said.

Liz Ratliff, visitor center manager, has been the moving force behind the distillery’s tour operations.

Tours can last from 45 minutes to an hour and guests are offered a “behind-the-scenes” experience. Because Kentucky Artisan Distillery was built first as a distillery and tours were later tacked on, the distillery boasts that people can get “up close and personal” to the distillery equipment.

Bourbon and whiskey taste testing is a main draw for visitors, but taste testing wasn’t always a component of the tours.

Ratliff said she started doing tours around the Labor Day holiday in 2015. Oldham County, however, wouldn’t vote to go wet until later that year. She said if the county didn’t go wet, it would’ve left the distillery facing some tough questions about its viability of the distillery.

Of the 9,108 county residents who voted in the special election, 62.5% voted to go wet. Before that vote, the City of La Grange was the only wet precinct in the county.

“The night of the election, I remember staying here with Steve and it was like we were running for office,” Ratliff said. “We stayed here until we got the phone call that it came in.”

Since that vote, Kentucky Artisan Distillery was added onto the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, an offshoot of the widely recognized Kentucky Bourbon Trail, specifically for artisan distilleries.

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the craft tour tallied 340,000 distillery stops in 2018.

As Kentucky Artisan Distillery has grown, so has the entire industry in Kentucky.

A 2019 economic impact report for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association estimates the industry provides 20,100 jobs, an annual payroll of $1 billion and $7.78 billion in the state’s economic output.

The report also estimates the distilling industry is “directly or indirectly responsible” for about $235 million in state and local tax payments in Kentucky annually.

The Oldham County Fiscal Court recently approved changes to the county’s zoning ordinance, which will allow for more distilleries, breweries and barrel warehouses in the county.

So with growth, there becomes a greater likelihood more distilleries, breweries and the like could set up shop in Oldham County, but that isn’t a concern for Thompson.

“We wish there were more distilleries in Oldham County, we support any additional distilleries,” he said. “I’ve been in the business most of my life, but you know, competition in this business is different than most others.”

The benefits of more distilleries in Oldham County is obvious to Thompson, the more there are the greater chance tourists stop at multiple ones.

Greg Hayden, one of the partners for Third Turn Brewing in Crestwood, also agrees with this sentiment.

“We believe having any additional people in will bring more addition to the product,” he said.

Third Turn Brewing is the county’s first brewery and opened in 2017. There’s also a restaurant on site and the winery Hive and Barrel Meadery also shares the space with Third Turn.

Hayden said the beer garden at Third Turn has allowed them to put a large footprint in Oldham County and he is looking toward focusing more on agritourism in the coming years, and also producing smaller batches of beer on site.

Thompson said after four years, Kentucky Artisan Distillery was able to turn a profit last year. From there they decided to begin investing in their own brands, Billy Goat Strut being the first, and are looking toward continued improvement.

“I think our overall goal here is to do what we do better,” he said. “It’s not necessarily to get bigger, it’s just to do what we do better.”

Read online at The Oldham Era

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