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    Eat & Swig

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    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar 

    Joyce Nethery says her distillery exists because she wanted a good-tasting tomato. “The kind that I just ate straight off the vine in my mother’s garden,” says Nethery, now the CEO and master distiller of Shelbyville’s Jeptha Creed, which opened in 2016.

    Her search for a non-grocery-store tomato led her down a gardening hole. She attempted to grow her own tomatoes until she discovered the succulent flavor of heirloom varieties, which eventually led her to an heirloom corn called Bloody Butcher — a sweet, nutty variety dating to 1845 whose white kernels slowly speckle into a deep red as it dries. In an early crop, she watched wildlife creep through an adjacent field of yellow corn to feast on the good stuff, the Bloody Butcher.

    Rounding a corner toward the distillery reveals 10 acres of stalks standing like a wall next to the road. Nethery grows another 240 acres on the family’s home farm on the Jeptha Knob in Shelbyville. The non-GMO, open-air-pollinated crop, along with water, are the only ingredients in the distillery’s flagship vodka, 60 times distilled through a two-story column still. Jeptha Creed also uses the corn to make moonshine, which is distilled in a traditional pot still with a thumper. This is all part of Jeptha Creed’s “ground to glass” concept: planting the corn, harvesting the corn, distilling with the corn, feeding spent grains back to livestock, fertilizing the fields — repeat. The result is a “sipping vodka,” with slightly nutty flavors from the corn and no back-of-the-throat burn.


    Autumn Nethery with mom Joyce at Jeptha Creed in Shelbyville.

    The shelves of the distillery gift shop are lined with color, like a deep-hued vodka infused with fresh blueberries. Pulp sits in the bottom of the jar of lemonade moonshine, floating like glitter in a snow globe if disturbed, the remnants of an infusion with two cases of hand-peeled and juiced lemons. The flavored moonshines are smooth and sweet — a dangerous combo.

    “We wanted to build (the business) for our children,” says Nethery, who runs the distillery with her daughter, Autumn, the marketing manager. (Autumn decided she wanted to distill when she was 18 and spent a year in Scotland learning the trade because she was not legally able to do so in the U.S.) Nethery’s background is in chemical engineering. “If you’re distilling, the principles are the same,” she says. “It’s just that (spirits) are a lot more fun. A lot tastier.” Jeptha Creed currently makes vodka and moonshine and has lines of experimental whiskeys aging in barrels.

    Prohibition's agave named NULU.

    “As we look back at the last 50 years, whiskey and bourbon was hot, and then it’s not, and now it’s back. There’s probably going to be some cycling as time goes on,” she says. “I wanted my children to have the flexibility to make…any product, any spirit.”

    It’s hard to avoid bourbon in the wake of the boom. But a small number of distillers are branching out into other veins of the spirit world. Copper & Kings in Butchertown has corned the craft brandy and gin markets. Whiskey distillery Rabbit Hole on East Jefferson Street also does a gin, as do New Riff in Newport, Kentucky, and Castle & Key in Frankfort. The only bourbon producer in Bourbon County, Hartfield & Company Distillery, is also doing rum. Even Buffalo Trace makes a vodka.

    At Prohibition Craft Spirits on Baxter Avenue, barrels sit inside the production warehouse. Some are filled with bourbon, others with rum or agave. Prohibition, which recently opened its doors to public tours, names its products after Louisville neighborhoods: Phoenix Hill Vodka, Baxters Rum, Highlands Gin, an agave called NULU. The company’s name is rooted in the building’s history: the last place in Kentucky to dole out medicinal alcohol during Prohibition.

    Owner Keith Hazelbaker says it makes sense to branch out into clear spirits, which go straight into the bottle without bourbon’s aging process. “There’s so dang many bourbon things out there,” he says. “Bourbon is the best in the world (in Kentucky) because of the limestone water. But the water doesn’t just do it for bourbon; it does it for all (spirits).”

     

    “We put a lot of time and passion into (our work),” says Turner Wathen, founder of Fortuitous Union. “That’s why we took eight years to mess up our first product.”

    Fortuitous Union is exactly that — a happy accident. Wathen and co-founder Jordan Morris had sourced a 12-year-old rum from Trinidad and aged it for eight months in empty bourbon barrels. The next step, the “second finish,” would be in port barrels. Not having their own space, they used a contract facility for that step — which dumped the rum into a stainless-steel vat before entering the port barrels. The problem? The vat wasn’t empty. It contained a five-year-old rye whiskey. Wathen and Larry Rice, owner of the Silver Dollar and a partner in the venture, tasted samples last year. “At that moment, my level of panic was reduced from 100 to seven,” Wathen says, adding that he thought, “This can be salvaged.” He says they were lucky that rye whiskey and not, say, vodka was in the tank.

    A glass of Fortuitous Union.

    The blend has the sweetness of rum upon the first coating of your tongue, the spiciness of rye as a finish. Wathen likes it in tiki drinks and as a replacement in whiskey-centric cocktails like a Manhattan or an old fashioned. “It has too much rum in it to be a whiskey and too much whiskey to be a rum,” Wathen says. “It falls into the WTF category.” (They’re still experimenting to determine the actual ratio of rum to whiskey.) Wathen says their biggest challenge has been convincing someone to buy one of the 1,650 bottles of a seemingly strange blend of whiskey and rum.

    When this passion project was conceived in 2010, Wathen wanted to revive a family history that included the Rolling Fork Distillery and whiskeys like Old Grand-Dad and Old Crow beginning in 1788, when Kentucky was still Virginia. The new Rolling Fork, which stores its barrels at Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood, is currently working to produce a blend of four-year-old rums, and a rum from El Salvador that will be “triple-finished” in empty — empty! — bourbon barrels. “We can bring rums to Kentucky and do really interesting things to it,” Wathen says. “Whether we accidentally do it or do it on purpose.”

    This originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "We've Got Spirits." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Cosmopolitan made from apple-flavored vodka from Jeptha Creed.

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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