right chemistry gives distiller a new spirit

Kentucky craft distiller branches out into rum

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2014 

  • Where to get Harvest Rum

    Harvest Rum, from Wilderness Trace Distillery in Danville

    Suggested price: $19.99 for a 375ml bottle; 47.5 ABV or 95 proof.

    Available at Liquor Barn, other retailers in Danville, some restaurants in Lexington and Louisville.

— What do you get when you mix a sorghum grower, a legendary distiller and a new distillery? Wilderness Trace's Harvest Rum, which was first shipped to stores in mid-February and will go to restaurants in March.

When Shane Baker and Pat Heist were getting their Wilderness Trace Distillery started, they planned to make bourbon and vodka. Then Danny Townsend came to see them and brought some of his award-winning sorghum from Mount Sterling.

"It tasted great," Heist said. But they couldn't put it in bourbon, which is restricted to grains, yeast and water.

So they started thinking of a rum. But federal definitions for rum specify using sugar cane. Could they get a molasses-based distillate classified as a rum?

Turns out, yes.

But the sorghum molasses is only half the story.

After Baker and Heist had made a clear rum from the molasses, they had another fortuitous visitor: Lincoln Henderson, the former Brown-Forman distiller and the idea man behind Angel's Envy, premium bourbon and rye finished in port wine and rum casks.

Henderson loved the buttery rum, Baker said, but he had a suggestion: age it in bourbon barrels.

"He passed away before he was able to see it released," Baker said. "But I'm sure he would be proud."

They had a few missteps. Their first attempt was terrific, but when they tried to repeat it, the bourbon swamped the rum. So they decided to eliminate variables by working only with freshly dumped Four Roses bourbon barrels.

"We chose those guys because it's a great product and we love those guys," Baker said. They only partially fill the barrels, he said, so it ages quickly and they get a nice balanced flavor.

They age the rum two to three months, to a pale gold. The finished product picks up the bourbon notes that pair well with sorghum and retains a buttery warmth, reminiscent of an old-fashioned popcorn ball.

Wilderness Trace Distillery opened to visitors in December and joined the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's Craft Tour. Since then, more than 700 people have toured and sampled Wilderness Trace's products.

Baker said there was "overwhelming demand for that rum."

"Really what we've seen are lots of people looking for bourbon. They are on the Bourbon Trail, and that product is so unique, with a bourbon nose and bourbon front and smooth rum finish, that people are really intrigued. Lot of comments were like, 'I'm not a rum drinker, but I could drink this.'"

Although Baker and Heist considered releasing the white rum, they have decided to stick with the aged version, even though it's 10 times as expensive to make as their bourbon.

"Everyone really enjoyed the white, but we are a limited product operation and want to put our focus and energy into bourbon, vodka and the aged rum," Baker said.

"We listened to consumers, and everyone was going crazy on the bourbon-aged rum, said it was unique, nothing like it."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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