What does one do if they love bourbon – but are traveling with someone who really prefers a good Irish whiskey or perhaps a hoppy IPA beer? You take them to one of the smallest and most unique spots on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail – Alltech Brewing & Distilling. You may not have seen their bourbons and whiskeys, but I bet you’ve seen their beer.
Today, Alltech is a recognizable name in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Founder Pearse Lyons was a generous soul in the region until his death in March 2018. In 2010, when the World Equestrian Games came for the first time to America, Pearse was instrumental as the title sponsor and the construction of a large indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park that still bears the Alltech name. And while his name is tied to bourbon, whiskey and beer, his legacy remains in the family-owned Alltech Corporation – a world leader in animal nutrition.
Dr. Pearse Lyons (with a Phd in biochemistry and yeast) immigrated to America from Ireland in 1970 with dreams of helping to sustain our planet. As a scientist and expert in yeast fermentation, he saw an opportunity to utilize yeast fermentation in plant and animal nutrition to maximize health and wellness. He founded Alltech in 1980 with just $10,000. Today, Alltech has a global presence, with more than 6,000 employees around the world.
But what’s the connection with distilling and brewing? Yeast. Lyon’s family had been actively involved in the distillery industry in Ireland. In 1999, Lyons had an opportunity to purchase the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company. In 2000, beer production was in full swing, followed a decade later by bourbon, ryes, and Irish whiskey.
Town Branch Distillery and Lexington Brewing Company are located near downtown Lexington. The interior of the visitor’s center whisks you away to a Dublin street corner, complete with an Irish pub. Following a quick video, the tour guide shares four tokens with each guest, entitling you to a tasting. While the tour is pretty traditional, and Town Branch is probably better sized as a craft distiller, the real joy is in the diversity of tastes one can experience on the tour.
The tour begins with a tour of the brewing operations of Lexington Brewing. After checking out the fermentation tanks and bottling line, you’re directed into a small beer tasting room. The tasting room is designed like a traditional Irish bar – which really sets up the experience of tasting. Several varieties of beer await, including Kentucky Ale Kolsch, Kentucky Ale, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Kentucky Vanilla Barrel Cream Ale, and Kentucky Coffee Barrel Stout. To maximize the number of different alcohols you try, it really helps if you’re traveling with a friend (or two). This way can sample a number of beers on a limited number of tokens.
- Kentucky Ale Kolsch is the rebranded “Kentucky Ale Light”. Brewed in a German-style, it is a light and crisp classic pale ale, made from imported malts and malted white wheat. This is smooth and easy drinker.
- Kentucky Ale was designed to be the flagship product (though, ironically, the Bourbon Barrel Ale is the best seller). It has just recently been rebranded as Kentucky Irish Red Ale. I classify this as a classic “Sam Adams” type lager.
- Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale – a heartier beer! Made from the same Kentucky Irish Red Ale, it is further aged in recently decanted Kentucky Bourbon Barrels. As we toured the brewery, there was an eclectic mix of bourbon barrels from some of the major, local distillers. Bourbon Barrel Ale carries the lovely caramel and bourbon flavors from those barrels, along with a hefty 8%+ ABV (note that most beers are in the 4-6% ABV). Although one of my favorites, it’s not the type to knock back multiple quickly after working outside.
- Vanilla Barrel Cream Ale is a newer addition to the lineup. This, too, is aged in spent bourbon barrels following a brewing process including flaked corn and bourbon vanilla beans to give it an extra creamy-vanilla profile. The Coffee Barrel Stout is brewed with Haitian coffee, and then aged in those world-famous bourbon barrels. Be sure to save a portion of the bourbon barrel ale and the coffee barrel stout. When poured together, while it won’t make a black-and-tan, you will get a unique blended product that locals refer to as a “double-barrel shotgun”.
- There are a number of seasonal brews available that may or may not be available for tasting on your tour. In springtime, there is a Bourbon Blackberry Porter. This dark beer finishes with the flavor of homemade blackberry jam and notes of vanilla and chocolate. Race Day IPA is another favorite. Normally, I’m not an IPA guy – but this IPA comes packed with light floral and citrus notes, with a low-hoppy (IBU) rating. Other seasonal brews include a Peach Barrel Ale, Pumpkin Barrel Ale, and a favorite of mine – Old Fashioned Bourbon Barrel Ale – complete with essences of orange, cherry, and bitters – just like an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Town Branch Distilling
After enjoying several beers, it’s onto the distilling side of the operations. Two copper pot stills are elegantly displayed along with four mash tubs. As a distiller, Town Branch arguably belongs on the Craft Distillery Tour rather than the more traditional Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Trail. Master Distiller Mark Coffman crafts several spirits, including Town Branch Bourbon, Rye, Malt, and Pearse Lyon’s Whiskey.
While I’m a huge fan of the beers, I had saved a few tokens to try some of these unique spirits that are harder to find in stores. The flagship brand, Town Branch Bourbon, comes in an elegant square glass bottle. The mashbill is 72% corn, 13% rye, 15% malted barley, and is bottled without an age statement. This is young stuff – the eye is very light copper. The nose is very sweet, and includes brown sugar notes and an odd banana essence. On the palate, it’s light – almost fleeting – with more sweetness and a somewhat off-putting banana note. The finish is equally fast, with some smoky oak notes. Sadly, this is one where the bottle is better than the bourbon. I had purchased a bottle of this previously and enjoyed it, but at the distillery, the banana taste was too offputting to enjoy. It’s hard to say if I lucked out the first time, if they changed their recipe or process, or if this is just an inconsistent product.
The Irish whiskies, though, were pretty tasty. Pearse Lyons Reserve is made from 100% malted barley and aged in barrels used for bourbon as well as their Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale product. The pour is an orange-rush color and is packed with fruit and marshmallow essences. On the palate, it’s a typical malt whiskey followed by a fruity-grassy finish. We were able to snag a pour of some of their more premiere whiskies, including a 12-year Founders Choice variety. It always helps to pay attention during the tours and stay engaged.
The final tasting was a very unique product – Bluegrass Sundown. This spirit is made from dark-roasted coffee that is infused with Kentucky bourbon and sugar. When boiling water is added, along with a delicate layer of heavy cream, you have a rich coffee-bourbon dessert with a Kentucky spin. While other products, such as Buffalo Trace’s Bourbon Cream can be consumed on their own or as a topping or mixer, the coffee-concentrate Bluegrass Sundown is best utilized as the recipe indicates.
This was a quick and easy tour. If you’re spending time in Lexington, this is an easy addition to your trip. While the bourbon is so-so, with Irish whiskey, a variety of beers, and the Irish-coffee-like Bluegrass Sundown, there should be something to please a wide variety of palates.