Kentucky is known as the land of bourbon, which takes its name from the county along the Ohio River. It’s been produced for more than 200 years, and visitors to the distilleries on and off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail makes for a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. But for some of the Bluegrass State’s famed distilleries, it’s not the only spirit worth celebrating. Gin has gained popularity in the past few years, especially for distilleries first getting off the ground that are waiting for their bourbon to age. Gin can be distilled and bottled right away, thanks to its neutral spirit base.
Brett Connors, head blender at Castle & Key Distillery, located in the historic E.H. Taylor facility near Lexington, knew that the company would be making bourbon. But they didn’t want to go the sourcing and blending route. “It put us in this weird conundrum where we didn’t really have anything to sell, we were just patiently waiting for our bourbon to mature,” he says.
The impetus was similar for Jay Erisman of New Riff Distilling in Newport, who grew up drinking gin with his Martini-loving father. “Gin doesn’t require any aging (even though we did age some of it), so it was a small revenue stream and also something we could at least pour for people in the early going.”
Dueling Grounds Distillery in Franklin offers gin for similar reasons. “Our master distiller, Steve Whitledge, had experience making gin when he joined us,” says owner Marc Dottore. “When he came in, I basically said, ‘Don’t make the gin you made for others. What’s the gin you want to make for yourself?’”
Making gin also lets distillers to flex their creativity in a way that bourbon doesn’t traditionally allow. They can play around with gin variety and botanical makeup and also barrel-age it, providing another use for their highly sought-after white oak barrels.
“I think gin’s kind of the penultimate playground to be able to show off distillation ability and flavor perspective,” Connors says. “There’s so much you can do in gin versus a variety of other spirits that are more restrictive.” At Castle & Key, this means creating two flagship gins, Roots of Ruin and Woolgatherer, plus seasonal varieties Harvest and Rise.
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“Roots of Ruin is super cocktail-oriented,” Connors says. “I mean, all of our gins are cocktail-oriented, but I think Roots of Ruin is made strategically to be great in all beverages. The majority of gin is not drunk neat or on the rocks; it’s going to be drunk in things like Gin and Tonics, Vespers, Brambles, Negronis, what have you.”
For Erisman, the first decision was deciding on a style. “Do you make a classic London dry?,” he says. “Do you make New Western postmodern gin? There’s lots of directions to go in. I developed the notion that we should have a gin from where we come from, from our homeland the Ohio Valley, from Kentucky.”
He sought to create a spirit with the unique terroir of the region and sourced native botanicals, including a local juniper, Eastern red cedar and American spicebush (which is similar to allspice). It’s named, appropriately, Kentucky Wild Gin.
Offering gin also adds an alternative for those doing the whole Bourbon Trail experience who may not personally be bourbon drinkers or who simply want something different.
“The demographics during the last couple of decades have been pretty dramatically shifting,” Connors says. “It used to be a lot of guys’ trips and that kind of stuff. But in the last few years, you’ve been really seeing this big transition into couples trips, group trips, bachelorette and bridal parties and all this different stuff that you didn’t historically see a ton of on the Bourbon Trail. You’re seeing new consumers who aren’t necessarily automatically bourbon drinkers.”
At Dueling Grounds, visitors can choose gin as one of their samples, which is also incorporated into cocktails. “We let people pick four samples, and we find a lot of people try the gin,” Dottore says. “A lot of people come in who are big gin drinkers who thought they came to a bourbon distillery, but [they] got to try gin.”
But it’s not just the visitors who are enjoying the gin from these bourbon giants. The critics seem to agree. Bowling & Burch, a New World gin from Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky, won a Gold medal at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits and platinum at the L.A. Spirits Awards competitions. Two of Castle & Key’s gins have claimed titles, including Gold in the 2023 Bartender Spirit Awards for the Harvest gin and Gold in the 2022 San Francisco Spirits Competition for Roots of Ruin. Both New Riff’s Kentucky Wild Gin and bourbon barreled version won Double Gold at the same competition.
In a land of great bourbon, Kentucky’s gins are now standing on their own.
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