Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
celebrate bourbon, America's native spirit
Prohibition Craft Spirits Takes an Historical Approach to Distilling
Prohibition Craft Spirits (PCS) is only in its sixth year. The building it occupies on Baxter Avenue in Louisville has housed everything from a drug store, to a bakery, to a restaurant, to a night club during the last century and a half. The building’s history reads like something out of a Prohibition bootlegger’s diary including secret tunnels for smuggling alcohol 100 years ago.
As recently as 2015, the building’s story added a bizarre chapter that featured fake financial books, identify theft, embezzling, illegal alcohol production, and thousands of gallons of spirits dumped in the alley behind the building.
To be clear, that was a different company and owner (who’s now in jail). On a recent tour of PCS, our excellent guide, Logan, explained the events in September 2015 this way: “ATF agents came through the door. They took all the bourbon and tequila into the back alley, hatcheted it, and dumped out like 4,000 gallons. It smelled like bourbon back there for a long time, according to the people who were there.”
PCS Founder and President, Keith Hazelbaker, took over and started a new company, paid off hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills, and bought the building. Now in its sixth year, PCS is selling its small batch gin, vodka, rum, moonshine, and sourced bourbon from MGP while it waits for its own product to turn five years old. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” Hazelbaker said as we sat down to talk after the tour.
Today, the PCS website describes its craft distilling mission like this: “There’s something special about rolling up your sleeves and getting ‘Back-to-Basics.’ At PCS Distilling Company's facility, we do just that; combining the finest ingredients in our recipes with hands-on, devoted attention to every step of the distilling process. Every batch is small-batch, made right here in our downtown Louisville location.”
PCS products have won numerous MicroLiquor Spirit Awards and are available in the Louisville area at retail stores, by ordering from Spirit Hub, and for pick-up at the distillery.
PCS Master Distiller Harrison Hyden is a Louisville native and has named each PCS brand after neighborhoods in his hometown. The signature brand, NULU (multiple bourbons and a rye), gets its name from the NuLu neighborhood the distillery adjoins.
The Louisville Tourism website describes the trendy NuLu neighborhood this way: “The East Market District of downtown, also referred to as NuLu (New Louisville) is becoming known for unique art galleries, specialty stores, antique shops and a growing number of local upscale restaurants.”
(See the sidebar for information on the other brands and their namesakes.)
More miles of tunnels for smuggling alcohol than anywhere
So what’s the deal with the tunnels? “Here in Louisville, we had more distilleries that were allowed to remain open during Prohibition to make legal alcohol than anywhere else in the country,” tour-guide Logan said. “Underneath Louisville are more miles of tunnels for smuggling that alcohol than anywhere else.”
The PCS folks recently discovered a tunnel in their basement that runs five blocks to what was, a century ago, Distillery Commons, one of the five functional Louisville distilleries during Prohibition. They found 100-year-old alcohol bottles and a miner’s lantern modified with a Model T taillight. Oh yeah, there are multiple bullet holes in the basement walls. The Roaring Twenties, indeed!
Tunnels under Louisville ran to the nearby Ohio River and various points around town. There’s even a story that frequent Louisville visitor Al Capone had to use a tunnel to escape capture from the famous Seelbach Hotel downtown.
A Focus on History
The public tours at PCS have an interesting focus on the history of Prohibition and the effects it still has on today’s spirits industry. Everything from bootlegging mobsters, to the connection between moonshine runners and the creation of NASCAR, to the evolution of the distilling process; you learn a lot. The PCS staff did research as Louisville’s Filson Historical Society, and the tour displays many wonderful black and white photos to view as 1920s music plays in the background.
Another major focus of the tour: The 1937 Louisville flood of the Ohio River that put the PCS building (which was, at that time, the Baxter Avenue Pharmacy selling medicinal alcohol) and much of the city underwater for nearly three weeks. Photos show bridges made out of bourbon barrel staves and people rowing around in the high water in bourbon barrels.
We also toured the production facility, which still includes evidence tags on the pot still and fermentation tanks from the ATF raid. Master Distiller Hyden explained the distilling process to us before returning to work.
One point of pride (sort of) that came from the 2015 ATF visit: “In the end, they charged our master distiller with bootlegging, with moonshining,” Logan said. "But when they figured out what had happened, they cleared him of all charges. The other guy went to jail in Tennessee. However, our master distiller is the only master distiller in Kentucky who actually does have moonshining and bootlegging on his record.”
The tours are an important part of building the PCS brands. After canceling all tours a week before being required to in March for the pandemic (losing 180 visitors from 14 states just that week), PCS reopened this summer using all the safety protocols. Like many distilleries, PCS made hand sanitizer, which is still available for purchase.
A Bourbon Country Honeymoon
Our tour group included Darryl Fluit and Erin Skoff from Portland, Oregon who had come to visit Kentucky bourbon country on their honeymoon. In addition to touring Angel’s Envy, Evan Williams, Kentucky Peerless, and Kentucky Artisan Distillery, they were headed to the Frankfort/Lexington area the next day. After the tasting session, I asked about their honeymoon destination and what they thought of PCS.
“Yes, we came to the bourbon trail, but I was actually very excited to try other spirits,” the bride said. “And also learning about the different distillation processes for the vodka, gin, and rum.”
“They didn’t talk as much about the whiskey as they did the history behind it,” the groom said. “Everywhere else, we’ve heard the same thing about how it gets distilled, how it’s whatever. And we learned a little about Louisville history. I liked that.”
“The smaller craft distilleries seem to have more come from their hearts,” Skoff said. “You taste the heart in the product. It just makes it more satisfying. It’s really nice to see these small places where everyone is involved in the daily business.”
PCS Wants to Be a Top Louisville Tourist Attraction
The chance to choose your own barrel has been a big hit at PCS. “We’ve done these bourbon groups from all over the country that do these single barrel picks,” said Hazelbaker. “We can sell up to 12 bottles per member. We let them participate in harvesting it and then they get to bottle their own stuff. These guys love this.”
The distillery facility includes The Prohibition Bar where you can eat and partake of their products and a wide range of bourbon and other spirits. Hazelbaker is about to add a storage facility across the river in southern Indiana and eventually wants to expand the company’s footprint in Kentucky. He plans to move from a single barrel of production a week to four barrels weekly. “I am going to expand my production, it’s just a matter of when,” Hazelbaker said.
The distillery is available to rent for everything from music events (the Nappy Roots, a Southern rap quartet, has performed here) to parties and receptions.“I want to be in the top 3 tourist attractions in this city,” Hazelbaker said. (He’s willing to go ahead and give Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger Museum the first two spots.)
If you’re looking for a hands-on, authentic, interesting, and tasty bourbon (and other) distilling experience, put Prohibition Crafts Spirits and the Prohibition Bar next door on your itinerary the next time you go exploring in Kentucky bourbon country.
Prohibition Craft Spirits Products
NULU Single Barrel: Barrel Proof Bourbon
While its bourbon is aging, PCS sources its bourbon from MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Each barrel is unique, uncut, and unfiltered.
Using the tagline "Born in Mexico, Raised in Kentucky!” PCS imports 100% Blue Agave from Jalisco, Mexico and puts it in still-wet bourbon barrels from Four Roses and Buffalo Trace. (At least until it has its own empty bourbon barrels to use.) They like to say that NULU Reposado is “better-than-tequila.”
Nose: Bourbon-caramel, sweet agave
Taste: Bourbon-forward, sweet, notes of caramel
Finish: Warm agave
Made with a Caribbean Islands recipe of blackstrap molasses, cane sugar, and Kentucky limestone-infused water. Baxter’s Rum is named for the avenue where the distillery is located.
Nose: Caramel, vanilla, roasted wood chips
Taste: Rich caramel, full-taste./: Smooth
Phoenix Hill Vodka
Named for the Phoenix Hill neighborhood adjacent to the distillery. Phoenix Hill Vodka is filtered eight times and mixes “cane sugar, pure limestone water, Kentucky sourced yeast, and a hint of lemon citrus to make this pure tasting vodka.”
Nose: Citrus, clean
Taste: Sweet, citrus
Finish: Smooth, crisp
Highlands Gin takes its name from both the highlands of Scotland, where juniper berries are grown, and the hip Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. Infusing juniper, coriander, peppercorn, orris, tangelo, and 9 other botanicals for a softer gin experience.
Nose: Very light juniper, complex, sweet, clean
Taste: Bright, light, sweet spice notes
Finish: Smooth, crisp