Town Branch Distillery: Lexington, Kentucky's First Distillery in Over 100 Years
As I've been working my way through Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, I had the pleasure to visit Town Branch in August 2022. Town Branch is relatively new, opening in 2012 in Lexington, Kentucky and has the distinction of being the first distillery to open in Lexington in a hundred years.
The first era of the Lexington Brewing Co. began in the 1890s and came to a halt during Prohibition, changing ownership several times in the decades that followed. By the time Pearse Lyons and his son, Mark, explored the brewery in 1999, it was a dilapidated shell of what it had once been. However, Pearse was a visionary and entrepreneur and saw only what it could be. Spurred by a passion for brewing and distilling that courses through the Lyons family lineage of Irish coopers, Pearse revived Lexington Brewing Co. and restored a craft beer tradition that dates back to the 1700s.
Truly, I think the founder of the distillery Dr. Pearse Lyons was probably more interesting than even the company's tasty brews and bourbons. So a little about him first. Dr. Lyons moved to the United States in 1976, having been asked by Irish distillery Gems Whisky to help ethanol distillers in Kentucky improve their processes.
In 1980, Dr. Lyons decided to “take control of his own destiny.” He launched his own business, Alltech, which built its success upon the application of yeast technologies to animal health and nutrition. Alltech was set up in a garage with an initial investment of $10,000 and enough money set aside to pay the mortgage and buy groceries for the family for a year. In its first year, the company turned over a million dollars. The very name ‘Alltech’ ensured his family was built into the business from day one. Lyons was considered an "entrepreneur, salesman, marketer and scientist all rolled into one", and was widely regarded in the agribusiness sector as an innovator and industry leader. He was also an author of more than 20 books and many papers and received many honorary doctorates for his contributions. He helped revolutionize the animal feed industry through the introduction of natural ingredients to animal feed and even developed research into human health challenges, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Now for the brews and bourbons...
Town Branch is the bourbon that flavors the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and I will say KBB is some of the best ale I've ever tasted. Since bourbon barrels can only be used once, the old barrels are re-used to store and flavor the ale brewed at the Lexington Distilling Company. Frankly, I don't enjoy beers and ales much (I prefer stouts), but the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is the one exception and I can't possibly choose between the Irish Red, the regular, or the Vanilla Cream. They're ALL delicious when served ice cold! I still need to try the Blueberry, Peanut Butter Stout, Peppermint, and Pumpkin. I did get to sample the Tangerine Ale. It was really good. It was sweet and creamy with fresh, light tangerine notes.
As for the bourbons, Town Branch boasts nine labels. The Town Branch bourbons are made with a higher-malt mash, aged in new, charred white oak barrels (about a 4 char) for a golden amber color.
Of the bourbons I tried I preferred the Single Malted Barley (7 years) because it was oaky and sweeter than some of the others and a lower proof at around 104. The True cask at 111 proof was a too strong for me.
Every time I go to a distillery I learn something new. I learned that there's a black fungus that grows in ethanol and is found in many rickhouses. My question is how that affects the lungs and respiratory systems of the people who come in contact with it.
I also learned about the different barrel sizes and that the tun is the sweet spot for creating the best flavor--too small the bourbon comes out tannic and bitter, too large it becomes flavorless. A butt is an actual barrel size and therefore the idiom "a butt load" is in relation to the largest barrel size.
Further, I learned that the reason bourbon distillers can legally only use one barrel is because many years ago, barrel coopers got together and decided it would be advantageous to their businesses if they convinced the government to legislate the one use rule.
Lastly, I learned that one oak tree can make only two 53-gallon barrels. Wow! That surely adds to the price of bourbon--especially when the barrels can only be used once.
If you're ever in the Lexington, Kentucky area, I highly recommend a tour at Town Branch. Though they're newer, the staff is knowledgeable and entertaining and you get a range from brew to bourbon to gin to taste. The gift shop has a great variety and the facilities are aesthetically pleasing.