When most people think of Frankfort and bourbon, they think of Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continually operating distillery in the United States, and the first to market single barrel bourbon commercially.
However, many would be surprised to discover that just a 15-minute drive from downtown Frankfort can be found the oldest craft distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The 127-acre Whiskey Thief Distilling Co. may be the senior citizen of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s Craft Tour, but industry-wide, it’s still in its infancy at a mere 10-years-old.
Original owner Ross Caldwell was both eccentric and passionate about his product, leading some to describe the authentic experience he offered as “a guy in his garage selling really good bourbon.”
Caldwell, the maverick bourbon distiller, could not have predicted that his path would cross with Walter Zausch, a Henderson native and University of Kentucky alumni, who – although he had hitched his professional star to the technology wagon, working at Apple and Microsoft – harbored a passion for bourbon that matched Caldwell’s.
After moving from Chicago to Central Kentucky, Zausch decided Seattle wasn’t in his future and neither was the tech world.
“I told myself that I live in the Silicon Valley of distilled spirits, and surely I can make a business out of it somehow,” says Zausch.
After a serendipitous meeting with Ross, he knew he could. He purchased the distillery from Ross two years ago and set about putting his own stamp on it.
“Walter’s vision is more public relations-oriented,” says Jeff Chesman, direct sales manager.
Claiming that his boss isn’t big on organized tastings and tours with strict starting and ending times, he adds, “Walter wants this to be a place where people can come to relax – to hang out, have a bourbon, and make some memories.”
Chesman makes sure that the public knows that while they appreciate those who call ahead for reservations, they also welcome walk-ins.
Whether making a reservation or walking in, visitors are treated to an experience they won’t soon forget. That experience includes a tour, a tasting from all five barrels, using the namesake whiskey thief (a ladle to siphon their own sample), a Rebecca Ruth bourbon ball and a souvenir shot glass.
In nice weather, they can also have a chance to sit and sip around a fire pit and on occasion, listen to live music. Bourbon historians can admire the original antique bottling line that was once used to bottle Pappy Van Winkle.
“It’s not functional,” says Chesman. “We bought it because it is such a cool talking point.”
If they are lucky, they may even get to make the acquaintance of Pluto, the black cat who showed up a year ago, and is now ensconced as the distillery mascot.
Another distillery team member, Mike Murphy, head of operations, worked for Zausch during his technology days, and met up with him again when the Florida native came to Kentucky for a Louisville/Central Florida football game.
“I like to say that I may have lost a football game, but I gained a career,” Murphy jokes.
As head of operations, he is responsible for the day-to-day running of Whiskey Thief Distilling Co., describing the distillery as a celebration of single-barrel bourbon and single batch distillation.
“We have five totally separate bourbons in their own barrels using lots of different mash bills,” he explains. “With a variety of notes that include cherry, vanilla and pepper, we truly have a barrel for everyone.”
What they also have is a truly unique opportunity – being, as their website says, “the only place in Kentucky where you can ‘thieve’ your own bourbon.”
This unconventional distillery bills itself as “the destination for bourbon wanderlusters.” So, if you lust for bourbon and are willing to wander a bit further afield, you’ll find Whiskey Thief Distilling Co. the ideal stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.