Last summer, we traveled just south of Lexington to meet with friends and share interests. From our conversations, I learned that they were friends with the owners of Wilderness Trail. We had passed a sign on the way into town and it piqued my interest.
Later that weekend, I noticed this bottle at a small liquor store in Kentucky, and after this tasting, this will be a definite stop in the not too distant future. I’ve mentioned before that several smaller, craft distilleries can’t seem to match the larger distilling operations in taste and quality. Similar to an earlier review, Wilderness Trail has me eating my words.
Doing Things Right
Located in Danville, KY and on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, Wilderness Trail has challenged the establishment and has been built on solid footing. The website and label contain a treasure trove of information. Established in 2012 by co-founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist, Wilderness Trail has proudly demonstrated what true craft distilling looks like.
The corn, wheat and rye are locally sourced at Caverndale Farms, just a few miles from the distiller. Additional rye is grown nearby in Adairville, KY, and barley is sourced from the northern states. The 44-acre campus houses a 36-inch column still that produces over 200 barrels per day. Onsite, over 23,000 barrels are quietly aging – less than half the total storage capacity. Most of these contain a mix of their three main whiskeys – Wheated Bourbon, Rye Bourbon, and Rye Whiskey.
Wilderness Trail takes on several unique processes. They utilize a proprietary Infusion Mashing Process where heat gelatinizes starches in the grains. The steam used in this process is chemical-free from a clean steam boiler – a first for the Kentucky Bourbon industry. Lastly, and perhaps most uniquely, Wilderness Trail utilizes a sweet mash process. This imparts a softer, more flavorful profile than traditional sour mashes.
Grab any bottle of bourbon and you’ll likely see the words “sour mash”. Think sourdough bread. When making a sourdough bread, you utilize starter (a yeast culture) that you grow, use, and then re-use to make more starter. So it is with most distilleries. A portion of the fermented mash (called backset or set-back) is utilized to help start the next batch of fermentation. This ensures consistency in tastes and profiles.
With a sweet mash process, each batch of grains starts the fermentation process with a fresh batch of yeast. This is a delicate and tricky process, as cross-contamination can easily occur. Remember, yeast is basically bacteria – think back to those high school biology experiments.
Starting a distillery can be capital and time intensive. Shane and Pat used their industry experience to put together a sound business plan, allowing them to self-fund the operation. Beginning in 2006, they established Ferm Solutions, a firm providing microbiology and engineering consulting services to the global distilling industry.
Similar to some other start-ups, such as Castle & Key, they utilized some quick revenue brands, such as Blue Heron Vodka, made from the same wheated distillate as their bourbon, and a Kentucky sorghum-based Harvest Rum product – both of which allowed cash to start flowing into the operation.
Lastly, taking a similar page as Castle & Key, they contract out approximately 30% of their capacity for other start-up brands that don’t have a distillery. With barrels filling the warehouse, Wilderness Trail has been patient in their releases. Most barrels of bourbon are aging at least 5 years, so it’s “hurry up and wait”. Because of the limited production and releases, you’ll likely only find this bourbon in Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, though ambassadors across the country are getting the word out.
As mentioned earlier, this was a bottled-in-bond non-chill filtration bourbon, bottle 246 of 253. The Bottled-in-Bond label requires it to be a product of a single distillation season, by one distiller, at a single distillery, stored in a federally bonded warehouse under US government supervision for at least 4 years, and bottled at 100 proof. The non-chill filtration allows some of the fatty oils and esters to remain in the bourbon. While the bourbon may become a little cloudy if chilled with ice, these oils and fatty acids typically add a creamier, richer mouthfeel.
The mashbill is 64% corn, 24% wheat, and 12% malted barley. The corn and wheat are grown locally in the Danville, KY area. Furthermore, the distillery utilizes a sweet mash instead of a typical sour mash. Each batch is made from 10-12 barrels.
Eye: Medium bronze.
Nose: Loads of sweet corn-on-the-cob intertwined with honey, caramel and vanilla notes. This smells very delicious.
Palate: Corn and honey-sweet notes with spice and a quick wisp of campfire smoke. The non-chill filtered process lends a slippery smooth sensation.
Finish: Long and smooth with some light pepper heat evened out with more honey and caramel. Absolutely delicious.
Overall: I’m going to eat my words here where I’ve said that many micro-distilleries just can’t beat the big guys. Kudos to Wilderness Trail for delivering a bottled-in-bond spirit – being patient and waiting – and delivering a solid, local, farm-to-bottle product. Compliments to other peers, such as New Riff for taking a similar course. In today’s rush to market to generate cash flow, the staff at Wilderness Trail have delivered a truly unique taste profile and one that I’ll proudly keep on my shelf.