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Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co:
A Family Runs Through it for More Than 130 Years
The concept of family weaves a recurring theme through the history of the bourbon industry. Just ask the Beams and the Samuels, or the Russells and the Noes.
Henry Kraver and his fourth and fifth generation Taylor descendants may not be household names (yet), but the idea of family runs just as strong in the story of their 140-year-old Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. craft small batch bourbon and rye whiskey brand. Today, it sits near the western edge of Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row on Main Street downtown. But it all began in Henderson, Kentucky in 1889 when Kraver purchased a distillery that had been making Peerless whiskey for nine years.
Kentucky Peerless (“Quality surpassed by none”) grew and prospered until 1917, when it temporarily stopped production to conserve corn for the World War effort. Unfortunately, Prohibition was just around the corner to make the closure permanent. Peerless whiskey was, however, stored in their bonded warehouses and available by prescription for a number of years.
In 2014, Corky Taylor, Kraver’s great-grandson, and his son, Carson, resurrected the family brand by obtaining DSP-KY-50, the original Kentucky Distilled Spirits Plant number for Peerless. Then, the pair began work turning an old warehouse in downtown Louisville into a modern-day distillery.
But there was no sourcing whiskey here while these newer generations waited to have whiskey of their own.
“We didn’t start out by buying product on the open market. We can look people in the eye and tell them if they taste this product it was either made by my great-great-grandfather or right here at 120 North 10th Street,” Fifth Generation and President Carson Taylor said. “That’s a huge deal. Everybody thought we were crazy when we restarted it up.”
When their first bourbon released in June 2019, it sold out in less than a day. Same for the second release. It didn’t take long for the new kids on the block to settle into a groove that only more than a century of heritage can give you.
"Passion for What We Do"
Like many distilleries in the Bluegrass, Kentucky Peerless was closed to the public for 11 weeks beginning March 16. But production never shut down, and none of the 22 employees were furloughed or laid off, a fact they are rightly proud of. How were they able to do that?
“For one, we have great people who have passion for what we do and what they do here with us,” said Taylor. “The retail folks helped us bottle, helped us roll barrels, and helped in different ways.”
Kilburn added, “It’s also because we’ve built amazing relationships, both on and off premise, with restaurants, bars, liquor stores, and whiskey societies. They’re continuing to go out to purchase and support (Kentucky Peerless). That’s how we’ve been able to survive.”
I visited the now 5-year-old distillery in its 120-year-old building in mid-September to see how Kentucky Peerless is faring in these uncertain times of the pandemic. After a tour, I sat down with several of the folks running the distillery.
“It’s just a big thank you to everyone who has supported us. It’s unbelievably humbling to have the kind of support that we’ve had,” Kilburn said.
Noting that Kentucky Peerless doesn’t have the advertising and marketing budget of the “big guys,” Cordell Lawrence, Director, Global Marketing and Strategy said, “We can do it authentically by building genuine relationships. And throughout, we always provide a first class experience when people come in.”
Like all distillers in the Commonwealth, Kentucky Peerless has had to reduce the number of tours by about half, and cut the number on each tour from 25 to 8.
“We found that people in that smaller tour size have a more authentic experience because they felt more comfortable to ask questions, at ease to dive deep on things they normally wouldn’t,” Lawrence told me. “And the tour guides have more time to field those questions. Truly a more hands-on, intimate experience. It was already an intimate experience, but now if feels like you’re part of the family.”
That proved to be quite true on my Kentucky Peerless tour, along with two couples from Chicago and Florida. Hunter, our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, described Kentucky Peerless as makers of “a high rye bourbon and a high corn rye,” promising us some single barrel samples at the end of the tour with, perhaps, a bonus pour to boot.
During the tour, Kilburn and Lawrence stopped in while we viewed the distillation process to say hello to the group. I’m not sure if they usually do that or if it was because one of our tour mates was visiting from Florida and works with a large alcohol distribution company. But it made the group feel very welcomed. (Sort of like family. See where we’re headed with this?)
The fermenters are off limits during this time at distilleries, but we watched empty barrels being loaded, waiting for the new distillate. The onsite warehouse is practically empty: most of the barrels have been moved to a new 5300 barrel rick house the company built 30 minutes away in Henry County in 2019.
Each tour ends with a tasting (or you can book just a tasting) where you’ll sample two single barrel bourbons and two single barrel ryes. Each single barrel product is given a distinctive name like Savory Oak, Grilled Fruit, Chocolate Rye Truffle, or Cocoa Honey to help relay some of the unique flavors.
Kilburn told me later, “I love the single barrels because we can just showcase so many different flavors and layers of the Peerless profile. If you take Small Batch, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with this wall of flavor coming at you. But with the single barrels, you can slow down and appreciate the individual notes and nuances.”
Our tour guide Hunter delivered on his promise of a bonus pour: a bourbon finished 10 weeks in an absinthe barrel from Copper and Kings Distillery in the Butchertown section of Louisville. (Note: with ample samples starting at 107 proof, don’t come on an empty stomach. This is really good stuff. Also, always remember to tip your tour/tasting guide.)
Quality whiskey and a good quality of life
Their small size and flexibility has actually turned out to be an advantage that keeps Kentucky Peerless competitive, according to Master Distiller Kilburn. “It’s more important to have a good quality of life for our employees than to get an extra six barrels out of the day. That’s a testament to Corky’s heart,” he said. “A family business that’s not just blood relations, we’re all in this together. We like to say it’s the Peerless family.”
I first met Kilburn, who at 27 is one of the youngest master distillers in the industry, virtually during a video tasting with the Bourbon Brotherhood last April. He talked that night about starting at Kentucky Peerless for $12.50 an hour, working to turn the old warehouse into a distillery. Kilburn’s experience growing up on a dairy farm gave him the skills to guide the assembly of the production equipment, and he was named distiller and oversaw the production of the first barrel in 2015.
“At the Christmas party two years ago, I had no idea it was coming…I was presented with this big metal placard that said “Caleb Kilburn, Master Distiller” on it. As soon as I unwrapped it I started crying; the whole Peerless family was crying. My fiancé was there, my parents were there. It’s what dreams are made of: that moment when all the stars align and you just know dreams will come true.”
From the authors’ bios:
Housed in a former warehouse they stripped to the bones 6 years ago, the distillery, gift shop, tasting room, and offices feature beautiful exposed oak beams and brick walls, hardwood floors, period furniture and even a Prohibition-era truck, all alongside state-of-the-art distilling technology.
Going Back in Time 100 Years
Carson Taylor was in the construction business in Louisville before helping his father bring back the family business. “We have a lot of passion for the fit and the finish, the look and feel that people have when they walk through the front door here. We want it to feel like you’re going back in time 100 years, but yet when you’re on the tour and you go through our distillation equipment, the computer system that Caleb designed that runs it…everything is the pinnacle of the best quality and best process,” said Taylor.
Taylor continued, “We’re able to tell the story when you walk in of my great-great-grandfather Henry Kraver starting Peerless. How it went through the years, having the medicinal license during Prohibition, my father being fourth generation, I’m fifth. I have two boys and a daughter: the sixth generation. So we’re looking not at just what happens right now, but five, ten, 15, 20 years from now. Restarting the legacy that Henry Kraver built for us and continuing to grow it.”
Kentucky Peerless has been one of the most awarded distilleries since its rebirth, for both its products and its packaging. Accolades include American Whiskey magazine, naming Kentucky Peerless “Craft Producer of the Year” for the Americas and “Global Craft Producer of the Year” in 2019. The company’s Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon was named “Best Kentucky Bourbon” at the World Whiskies Awards in February of this year.
Carson Taylor designed the unique (and heavy) bottle. “Being a military family, it had to be made in the United States,” he said. The bottle won the Spirit Package of the Year from The National Association of Container Distributors for the bottle design, label and cap – the first time all three have been won by one company.
All of this success is definitely the result of a collaborative, in-house team effort. “We give everybody input on anything we’re doing, whether it be t-shirts and hats in retail, to glassware, to equipment like pumps and bottling line stuff. Everybody has input. We’re just a small family. We eat lunch here together every day. It means a lot to everybody,” Taylor said.
What does the future hold for the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.?
“We just plan on continuing to make a great bourbon and rye whiskey, expand our single barrel program, and give people a great tour. We feel like we win somebody for life if they can get in here and we show them the entire story exactly how we do it all under one roof: that’s a big deal for us,” Taylor said.
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. may be without peer, but they’ll never be without family as they navigate the uncertain waters of the burgeoning craft distillery business. As their whiskey and sixth generation continue to age, watch for even greater things to come.
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. Bourbon and Rye Whiskey
Strictly sweet mash
Barreled at 107 proof
Double-distilled in 26-foot continuous copper still
No water added
Bottled at barrel proof
Peerless Bourbon is rooted in fruits, florals, and oaks.
MSRP: Rye $89.99, Bourbon $69.99, Single Barrel $124.99
Available in 45+ states
Member of the Kentucky Distillers Association and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour