Bourbon Industry

As the industry grows, UK ag college to offer certification in wine, brewing and distilling

Toni Cannon, operations supervisor, center front, talked to a group of University of Kentucky students about bourbon tourism during a visit last month to Town Branch Distillery in Lexington.
Toni Cannon, operations supervisor, center front, talked to a group of University of Kentucky students about bourbon tourism during a visit last month to Town Branch Distillery in Lexington. Herald-Leader

In 1994, Harlen Wheatley had just graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering when he got a phone call: would he be interested in leaving the chemical company where he was working and come work for Buffalo Trace?

Master Distiller Gary Gayheart was planning his retirement and they needed somebody — "some young, dumb guy like myself" is how Wheatley put it — to come in and learn the ropes.

Distilling, after all, is basic chemistry.

"I wasn't looking for a job, I was working," Wheatley said. Still, this would be a chance to stay in state and would be something different than working for Ashland, which was about the only other employer for chemical engineers in Kentucky at the time.

"I said, 'I guess,'" Wheatley remembered. "The rest is kinda history."

During the past 20 years, Wheatley has risen through the ranks to become the master distiller, worked with greats like the late Elmer T. Lee, and become the face of some of the top bourbon brands in the world.

But it all happened by chance.

Now UK wants to give students interested in a future in Kentucky's booming beverage industries an advantage. The UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment wants to offer an undergraduate certificate in distillation, wine and brewing studies.

The proposal has received the approval of the college's undergraduate curriculum council and is awaiting final approval from the university.

The college will offer the certification to students in any major who complete at least four of the classes, including spirit chemistry taught by chemistry professor Bert Lynn, and wine, brewing and distillation science taught by Seth DeBolt.

DeBolt, who will be the program director, has solicited input from the Kentucky Distillers' Association, and from local breweries and Kentucky wineries.

"This is a huge industry, and there wasn't a single class in it," DeBolt said. "I wanted to make students aware that there's opportunity and this is out there."

A horticulture professor with a doctorate in viticulture, DeBolt would like to see UK grow into a role like the University of California-Davis plays with Napa Valley for providing educational as well as research resources.

He knows there is strong interest in the spirits industry. Two years ago, when he began offering his first overview, he was overrun with students.

"I've been really hesitant to advertise (the class) because the one time I put five fliers out, I had 70 students," DeBolt said. That was amazing for a class with the word "science" in the title, he said.

"I made it very clear that there would be no tasting involved," he said. Still, he had to increase class size until the room ran out of capacity.

That convinced him to team with Lynn and viticulture professor Jeff Wheeler, as well as faculty in other areas such as chemical engineering, food science, human environmental sciences, writing, rhetoric and digital studies.

The class offerings include Kentucky Bourbon Tourism, which features trips to distilleries; craft writing on the link between craft beer and the local food movement; food sanitation; food fermentation and thermal processing; and sensory analysis.

More classes probably will be added to complement existing degree programs, which this won't replace.

"It's not like a master's in wine or a graduate degree focused on one subject," DeBolt said. "We kept it purposefully broad, to give a basic introduction. They will still need to get an internship and work their way up."

His grape and wine classes, which were offered for the first time in the spring, have attracted a diverse group of students, Wheeler said.

"They all have something they can use this for in a professional career," he said.

Most won't end up working in wine, but some might. The biggest limitation that Kentucky's wine industry faces right now, he said, is the lack of trained workers.

"If we can give them even a year or two of experience, it's immensely helpful," Wheeler said. "Knowing how to grow grapes and make wine is a long process. It takes years to learn to make high-end wine. ... I want to introduce students to commercial grape growers, try to set up job opportunities or internships."

The college hopes to offer the certification beginning in 2015. Enrollment is projected to be about 20 students the first year and up to 100 by the third year. Already there are some who have taken all the appropriate classes.

Nancy Savage of Nicholasville went back to college a few years ago to study sustainable agriculture. But after taking Wheeler's viticulture class she was drawn into wine appreciation and a job working at UK's South Farm vineyard.

Now she's taking winemaking, Lynn's spirit chemistry, and Debolt's overview of wine, beer and spirits. And she's signed up for a new course in brewing science next semester.

On a recent class field trip to Country Boy Brewery in Lexington, she said that the certification would meld well with sustainable agriculture.

"These classes are great classes," Savage said. The wine appreciation might sound like a cakewalk, she said, "but it challenged you."

Students aren't the only ones who will benefit from the courses. Distillers, brewers and winemakers have been encouraging the college to establish a more secure pipeline of skilled talent for a burgeoning business.

Kentucky's bourbon industry is in the midst of a billion-dollar growth spurt, with $640 million in expansions coming in the next five years.

Already the distilling industry employs 16,000 people, and that number is expected to swell by thousands.

Brewing doesn't employ as many, but it is still growing by leaps and bounds, said Nate Coppage, head of production for Country Boy.

"I think this is awesome that it's happening," he said. When he wanted to get into brewing, he struggled to find anywhere in Kentucky to learn the craft, he said.

Now, just about everyone who has any brewing knowledge has been hired, and the local breweries are hard-pressed to find qualified employees.

"Lexington is picked clean," Coppage said. "Everyone I know in town with a brewing background is taken already."

Eastern Kentucky University also is preparing to tap into the market: the Richmond college has proposed a fermentation certificate for would-be brewers and distillers.

Kentucky's growing craft distilling industry also is asking for help finding qualified people.

Nancy Cox, dean of the agriculture college, said the new focus on distilling and brewing was another way the school could assist the economy of the state.

"We started working with wine, but (DeBolt) was hearing loud and clear of work force needs," Cox said.

With several hundred entry-level positions coming open every year, the classes are "going to be very popular," Cox predicted.

"I think Seth and his team have tapped a real interest," she said. "This isn't easy — it's everything from growing the plants to the chemistry. It's an art and a science."

There is potential, she said, for the program to grow with the needs of the industry.

UC Davis offers advanced degrees in wine. Might UK one day offer degrees in beer or bourbon?

"The College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment has a good track record of working with our industry partners," Cox said. "I would hate to predict how large it would grow."

Buffalo Trace's Harlen Wheatley said the program would be a boon for both sides.

"I started very green," Wheatley said. "If I have a kid who comes here and applies, and he's got my résumé, and another who has the résumé and that certificate, that guy's probably going to get the nod."