Just like sports or movies, every trade has their folk heroes. The people who paved the way and made the industry what it is today and set a standard for what is to come. In our fair community of bourbon those heroes are the Master Distillers.
The term ‘Master Distiller’ to be fair is an entirely unregulated term and there is not a legal or official definition. It was something simply understood by those who knew that when you were given that title it meant you had perfected your craft to the point that the entire distillery’s operations were under your watchful eye and guidance. And while today, with young new distillery’s opening every day, it often feels as though the term “Master” has been tossed around lightly like a Burger King crown for everyone to wear. However, once again, those who truly know…they know the greats.
And I was lucky enough to speak to one of them.
Steve Nally is the Master Distiller for Bardstown Bourbon Company in Bardstown, Kentucky. And while that company may have been founded just a few years ago in 2014, Steve has been in the business of bourbon for far longer. Having worked at Maker’s Mark for over three decades and becoming their Master Distiller before heading west to help start Wyoming Whiskey as their Master as well, it’s no wonder Bardstown Bourbon scooped him up.
Steve joined me on a swing through Chicago as he was making a stop at The Franklin Room, a well known watering hole downtown. As we sat down in the booth in the very busy and frenetic lounge he greeted me with a friendly focus that cut through the noise and let me know he was happy to speak - which was a nice feeling considering this is essentially my first ever interview in this space - and what struck me about Steve was two things:
1 - He makes you feel welcome and like a family member with direct eye contact and a smile as he says almost anything.
2 - He talks about technical aspects of the business with a fervor and excitement of a child while also not going over your head with any of it. His passion for the business is simply shining through.
And so given all that would it surprise you that this titan of bourbon started off on something other than whiskey?
“As far as acquiring a taste for (bourbon) I had to kinda grow into it. In my younger days I was more a beer drinker. So when I started working at Maker’s Mark, I acquired a taste for Maker’s Mark. Thus acquired a taste for wheated whiskey.” Steve told me as he recanted his tales of starting out in the buisness. Like most of us Steve was simply looking for a job when he found his first opening at the iconic distillery. It was the beginning of a journey that would last over thirty years and lead him to his first title as Master Distiller.
Having had a long and prosperous career at such a well established distillery you can imagine that it would be rather easy to ‘go out on top’ as it were and retire with a well received career in whiskey. But given that tenure, I shouldn’t be surprised by the answer he gave when I asked what keeps him going in the distilling business.
“Just love it!” he says with chuckle and smirk warm enough to melt butter. His passion once again for the art of creating whiskey shines through in his words and it’s that passion that lead him to his next step in bourbon when he left Kentucky to head to Wyoming and helped to create Wyoming Whiskey - the first legal whiskey distillery in the state.
“When I went to Wyoming I thought I’m 1500 miles away from the bourbon capital of the world. I can experiment, try things, nobody will really know what I’m doing…and that wasn’t true. Everybody knew exactly what I was doing!”
Steve says that the experience of heading west and helping start the young distillery under his own watch was an important step in perfecting his craft. He tells me that it was key in building the self confidence to know he could do it on his own. He had learned at Maker’s but could now take that knowledge and confidence and start something all himself. But Wyoming was the first time Steve had left his home of Kentucky in fifty plus years and after some time away felt it might be time to return the Bluegrass Sate.
“I was born and raised in Kentucky. I had been in Wyoming six and a half years. I was starting to get homesick.”
However it wasn’t simply home that called. It was Bardstown Bourbon Company. The new distillery reached out to the long tenured Master and asked him to come aboard to head their operation and in that offer Steve saw an opportunity to do things he’d always wanted to do.
“Coming to Bardstown Bourbon I got the chance to explore, to experiment. The other two places I really didn’t have the opportunity because Maker’s Mark is one recipe, one process. Wyoming was similar - I got to try a little bit but not as much. Here I’m free to do anything I want. From collaborations to experiments with grains and processes.”
You can clearly see this autonomy and freedom excites Steve as he lights up just a bit more than usual, as if the dimmer switch in his heart is being slowly turned to the right, as he goes into the details of everything he’d like to try and finally has a chance to. And one of the most fascinating things about this business is exactly what Steve is talking about here. Whereas often in other industries the longer tenured and more established you are, the more ingrained to doing it one way and keeping that status quo you may be. However I’ve found in whiskey that many of these veteran distillers often jump at the chance to finally break from that. Often their most experimental years come later in their careers - not early.
From what Steve says, the team at Bardstown Bourbon Company is doing things the right way and allowing that creativity and the experimentation to flourish, all the while being open and honest about everything they do.
“The Transparency. The openness.” Steve replies when I ask him what he thinks is the most exciting aspect of what Bardstown Bourbon is doing, “There’s not anything at the distillery that’s hidden.”
He mentions that visitors can take pictures of anything, ask any question they want, and that even all the mash bills they run are posted on computers and all of it public.
“Even our labels that we put on our products that we blend - it’s all on there, exactly what’s in it.” he says referring the labels on the new Fusion and Discovery series blends that Bardstown Bourbon have released. Each label carries the mash bills, ages, and percentages of everything used in the blend - a welcome addition to not only bourbon enthusiasts but a growing consumer base who simply want to know what’s in the product they’re consuming. And to hear this coming directly from the Master Distiller himself, that he WANTS that information to be free and open, is a breath of fresh air in an industry that’s often cagey about details of their products.
Even their new single barrel program is unique. Instead of simply tasting barrels and bottling the one you like, Bardstown is offering younger barrels that will allow you to check in on whiskey as its aging thus allowing stores, bars, restaurants et al to have a relationship with their barrel and final product. In fact they just recently had their first of these picks in which they offered up five different mash bills including:
1. A wheated bourbon at 20% wheat
2. A wheated bourbon at 39% wheat
3. A rye bourbon at 21% rye
4. A rye bourbon at 36% rye
5. A 95% rye whiskey
All barrels were aged between one year and nine months up to two and a half years. And after deciding which barrel and recipe they liked, the pickers will get to check in on the progress as it goes until it’s ready. However Steve let me know that even though someone else is buying it, it is still a partnership decision.
“They cannot release it until we say it’s ready and then they say it’s ready. So it’s a team effort.” he tells me before letting me know that after that’s agreed, it’s up to the client how long to keep going, “If I say it’s ready and you want to leave it for five more years you can leave it as long as you want…but you cannot take it out before it’s ready.”
However, despite all the innovation that Bardstown Bourbon is doing currently, one of the things Steve is most excited for is the day Bardstown Bourbon Company releases a product of entirely their own distillate which, according to Nally, will be in approximately two or three years time.
“The next exciting thing will be when we release a core brand product that’s 100% Bardstown Bourbon produced…that’s going to showcase exactly what we’ve done.”
And if the Fusion and Discovery blends or the Copper & Kings collaborations are even a slight indication of the quality and detail that will go into their own distillate then the whiskey world is in for a treat. But as for me, I’ve already been treated by being able to have had a conversation with one of the greats, one of those heroes of bourbon, one of the TRUE Master Distillers.