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Peerless

There are two main chapters to the story of Peerless Distillery. The first starred Henry Kraver, your classic early Kentucky bourbon pioneer. After he purchased the brand in 1899, he spent his reign investing, innovating, and merrily making booze. Until he headed into the double trouble of war and Prohibition. A familiar roadblock for many, Peerless eventually succumbed and when the last barrel was sold, it went dormant.

The second chapter began in 2014, when Kraver’s great-grandson, Corky Taylor, and his son Carson, revived the project. The Taylors constructed a distillery in an abandoned 115-year-old tobacco warehouse in the Bourbon District of downtown Louisville and even got special dispensation to restore Peerless’ old DSP number, KY 50. The team has been producing the good stuff since 2015 and in 2017, a two-year-old rye whiskey became the first whiskey made at a distillery named Peerless for nearly a century. Now, Peerless Rye and Peerless Bourbon make up the core range.

The distillery has strong beliefs on how to make bourbon, such as using sweet mash fermentation rather than the industry standard sour mash. This involves adding a portion of a prior fermentation batch into the next run. There’s no recycled stillage, just fresh grains and water filling the brand’s six fermentation tanks, creating sweet, floral and citrus notes in long, controlled runs of five to six days in order to retain more flavour. Peerless also insists on low barrel proof (ABV) entry and high bottle strength. This used to be commonplace, but economic factors and a cultural shift towards white spirits in the sixties prompted producers to change tact to achieve a lighter flavour and lower cost.

The distillery doesn’t reveal the particulars of its mash bill, but we know it’s a mix of corn, rye and barley. These are grown in the US and malted with Kentucky limestone water. In the bourbon, there’s around 10-15% of both rye and malted barley, but the fermentation character’s floral sweetness keeps the rye’s peppery elements balanced. Double distillation takes place first in a 26-foot continuous copper still from Vendome Copper & Brass Works which strips the distillate away from the beer. The spirit then goes to a smaller pot still, which creates adds body and weight while allowing more precise cuts.

Peerless also uses a 3,800-gallon beer well which pumps a slurry of grains and alcohol into the column still. It flows down a series of trays and spillways while steam blows up through each level. As that steam blows through the beer, it condenses the water within the steam and boils away the alcohol vapour until it’s roughly 60% ABV at the top of the column. From there it condenses and runs into the pot still. The hearts boil off ahead of tails and the latter is consistently fed back to the beer well to start the process over again, allowing Kilburn to re-distil the discarded spirit and separate the good elements away from the bad (methanol, propanol, butanol and other harsh oils and acids).

Ageing occurs for a minimum of four years in barrels housed in the Peerless rickhouse on a single-story. Using gimmicks to heat, cool or change the whiskey is out of the question. Kelvin Cooperage supplies the casks with a medium toast beneath a number three char to maximise the red layer of the char. It’s an active layer where the wood’s structure breaks open to allow tannins you can extract during ageing, which is where a great deal of the colour, flavour and aroma characteristics of the wood comes from.

This process has led to one of the most impressive new ranges of bourbon and rye whiskies from Kentucky. You could say it’s whiskey that’s peerless by nature, not just name.

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