Walking the Wilderness Trail, Part II: Wilderness Trail Distillery
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
To begin my Bourbon Trail journey, I recently attended a tour at the Wilderness Trail Distillery (WT) in Danville, Kentucky. It was on a blustery, gray day. As we drove up the long drive toward the visitor’s center, we were greeted by a historic building flanked by a skeletal tree—a scene reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. The black rickhouses rose starkly and dramatically against the cloudy sky. Sitting on a 168-acre campus, WT distillery launched in 2012, and focus on making high-quality bourbon, rye whiskey, and vodka.
WT was founded by Shane Baker and Pat Heist who had once been in a rock band together. Baker had distillery in the blood. His family had been distilling in Kentucky since the 1940s when his grandparents met and fell in love at the Kentucky River Distillery where they worked. Baker’s grandmother went on to complete a 50-year career in the industry and retired from Stitzel-Weller.
Baker and Heist both had strong backgrounds in several sciences and more than 20 years of industry experience. They began WT bourbon with many yeast strains they had collected over the years, combining them with a premium selection of locally grown seed grade corn, wheat, and rye. The grains are actually grown just a few miles from the distillery on Caverndale Farms and the rye is sourced from Walnut Grove Farms in Adairville, Kentucky. The malted barley, though it comes from a grain elevator in Louisville, Kentucky, is grown in the northern U.S. The water, which is often hailed as the not-so-secret ingredient of Kentucky’s prime bourbons, comes from Kentucky’s natural limestone springs.
From this special cocktail of 100% Kentucky sourced ingredients, WT produces two varieties of Bourbon Whiskey and a Rye Whiskey with a flavor borne from a proprietary Infusion Mashing Process that uses the exact amount of heat to gelatinize starches without degrading the quality of the grains. One note of distinction is that WT is the first Kentucky Bourbon distillery to use a clean steam boiler, rendering a chemical-free steam that won’t impact the flavor.
WT is now a Heritage Member of the Kentucky Distillers Association, which is the highest
level distillers can attain within the KDA. To qualify as a Heritage member, a distillery must have 50,000 barrels of distilled spirits aging in its warehouses—and the 100,000 barrels in the six WT rickhouses absolutely ensures WT’s Heritage status.
When the hubby and I arrived at the visitor center for our tour, the environment was clean and decorated in what I will call a cozy ,“bourbon chic”--meaning lots of exposed brick, exposed pipes, and polished oak wood. We were seated beside bourbon barrels transformed into tables where we enjoyed a flight of WTs popular labels while our guide informed us about the history of the distillery.
About the Wilderness Trail Bourbon
When the tour began in earnest, we were guided up the stairs and invited into the fermentation room where several giant vats filled with a frothy brew steamed and bubbled like the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth: Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. The air was humid, warm, and contained the yeasty, malty aroma of beer.
It was here that we learned that most whiskies are made with the sour mash technique, but WT sets itself apart by employing the sweet mash process. To put this in the simplest possible terms: Sour mash is a process used in the distilling industry that uses material from an older batch of mash to start the fermentation of a new batch, kind of like when you use a starter to make sourdough bread. Whereas sweet mash whiskey does not use any back set in the fermentation process. They cook their grains, add their yeast and let it ferment. WT claims that by not acidifying the mash, they are able to bring more flavors forward from the grains with a softer finish.
From there we crossed the ground to the distillery building that was about two-stories high and filled with copper stills. Since 2016, WT has distilled their bourbon through a Vendome 40 foot tall, 18-inch beer column still and then double distilled continuously through a 250 gallon copper doubler as well as a new 40 foot tall, 36-inch continuous beer still and 500 gallon doubler. Between the two distillers, WT can produce 216 barrels each day.
It’s here, too, that we enjoyed a sample of the WT “white dog” from a small clear box that ran over a constantly-turning steel wheel. White dog is the
clear distillate before being barreled and aged. This was my first time tasting white dog. I sure did like it—a lot! It tasted like the flavor of buttered popcorn jelly beans or butterscotch candy, but was such a high proof (around 135) that it practically evaporated on my tongue before I could swallow it!
Once the alcohol is fermented and distilled, it’s stored in 53-gallon oak barrels with a #4 level char, which helps determine the flavor and color over time. Kentucky limestone spring water is added to the distillate to bring the proof down to 110 for the WT bourbon and 100 for the Rye Whiskey, which is the lowest proof in Kentucky, but according to WT, it tastes better.
The barrels are then taken to one of the multiple aging rickhouses onsite. WT chooses to age their bourbon at four years before release, with a goal to age their whiskey an average of 6-8 years for standard releases. While we were in the distillery, we met the company kitty-cat, but, unfortunately, I can’t remember its name at all. I guess that white dog went straight to the brain!
We then went to the rickhouses and learned a lot about how the barrels are stacked and pulled and I even got to sign one of the barrels!
After the tour, we saw the lab where new flavors and recipes are developed and where a batch is tested to see if it meets WT standards. Then we returned to the visitor’s center where the knowledgeable tour guide answered our questions and where we received a complimentary shot glass and a bourbon ball. And for anyone who’s been following my blog or knows me personally, you know I love a good bourbon ball! I bought the field guide and received my first stamp and am looking forward to getting every stamp!
I’ve been on a few bourbon distillery tours before, but since I’m trying to start fresh with the field guide as I make my way through the Bourbon Trail, I’m going to resist the temptation to compare this distillery to others.
WT is a newer distillery, so they don’t have the history that some others have, but that’s okay. They’re smaller and growing. I do, however, feel compelled to note my feelings about their bourbon—and this is purely my opinion, so I’m not trying to disrespect their bourbon. I believe there’s a place for them in the bourbon community and that a bourbon I like might not be liked by others and vice versa. So with that in mind, I’ll say, in general, it was okay.
Overall, I’d give it about a 3.5 of 5 stars with five being the best. For the tour: I’d give a 5 of 5. The staff was friendly, helpful, professional, and knowledgeable. For the facilities/campus: I’d give a 3.5 of 5. It’s still fairly new and growing, so it has plenty of room for improvement and beautification, but it was clean, cozy, and had a rugged charm. I had a flight of four or five labels and I’m having to rely on my memory here (I’ll need to do better about making immediate notes in the future). So I have to give my general overall impression. For flavor I’d have to rate it about a 3.5 of 5 stars because it seemed to lack depth of flavor or complexity of other bourbons I've had. For strength: I’d give it a 4 of 5; it packed a punch--and the white dog, I LOVED! I still think about that stuff. I’d give it a 5 of 5. It had a rich, buttery flavor that was simply amazing. I would definitely recommend this distillery for a tour. The intimate setting and the great staff ensures you will learn a ton about the bourbon process. I definitely learned more on this tour than I have on any of my other tours in the past.