The Barrel House Distilling Co.

Aug 15, 2008

The goal for the three men behind Barrel House Distilling Co. is to make a premium bourbon in Lexington.

It’s going to take a while to make, so they hope you will try some vodka right now.

Partners Jeff Wiseman, left, Frank Marino and Pete Wright have opened a micro-distillery, Barrel House Distilling Co., at the site of the former Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. The three are making vodka and rum and eventually plan to make bourbon. Their Pure Blue Vodka is now available on a limited basis, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Town Branch Trail.

A year from now, the trio plans to roll out a honey rum aged in bourbon barrels. And in four, maybe five years, a Lexington-made bourbon will hit the shelves “when it’s ready,” said Frank Marino, one of the co-owners. A whiskey is also possible.
“We need people to buy the vodka to support the other products,” he said. A portion of proceeds will also go to the Town Branch Trail, which runs adjacent to the land they occupy on Manchester Street.

Narrowing down the names Pure Blue is named for the pure spring water used to make vodka in the Bluegrass. It has nothing to do with the University of Kentucky, the co-owners insist. They started with 50 names and used focus groups to whittle down names. Finalists included “Belle Brezing” and “Top Hat.”

“We wanted this product to be Lexington’s product. We wanted it to be something people wanted in image and name,” Marino said.

So, how does the vodka taste?

It’s clean and smooth with a slight sweetness in the finish.

As someone told Marino, it’s smooth enough that a person can drink and “straight-face it.”

Even though Kentucky has a bourbon reputation, Jeff Wiseman hopes people will embrace a Kentucky vodka. “It’s the same thing that makes the bourbon good. It’s the water,” he said.

Barrel House enters the market at a time when there is a renewed interest in bourbon and craft distilling. Prohibition killed many of the distilleries that used to dot Central Kentucky. Just a handful survived or began distilling in the decades after liquor became legal again. In Fayette County, the James E. Pepper Distillery closed nearly 50 years ago. It was the end of Lexington-made bourbon.

Now, 75 years later, the state is promoting tourism among the bourbon distilleries with the “Bourbon Trail” and Alltech, the company behind Kentucky Ale and chief sponsor of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games, recently began distilling a malted whiskey in Lexington to be available for the Games. Still, the partners in Barrel House think they will be the first in Lexington to distill and sell liquor in decades. And their location – about 2,000 square feet of the Pepper Distillery’s old barrel house – could become part of a larger development and tourism draw. Barry McNees, who owns the distillery’s land, is seeking help from the government to secure financing to renovate the area and install a museum, shops, sidewalks, trolleys and lighting in the area he calls the Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Friends since junior high

The three men go way back.

Wiseman and Pete Wright grew up on Edgewater Drive and went to Glendover Elementary School together. They met Marino at Morton Junior High School and all three graduated from Henry Clay High School.

They all pursued their own careers, but agreed it would be fun to partner on something they were passionate about. Wright is a neurologist, Marino is an architect and Wiseman owns a construction company. “We’re all craftsmen of sorts in our other professions. There is a craft to this, too,” Wiseman said.

Marino, the son of a local liquor store owner, assumed the role of master distiller. A year and a half ago, his father unwittingly encouraged him with a “Damn, Frank, this is good” after sipping some of the group’s honey rum.
In April, they took a bottle of rum and a bottle of vodka to the American Distilling Institute’s conference in Louisville. In between panels and speakers, they buttonholed master distillers and fellow enthusiasts. All told the men they were impressed and gave their blessing.

“We started to realize this is something we could pull off,” Wright said. “People are very excited that there is going to be a homegrown product that doesn’t necessarily fit the previous molds.”
Now, the friends and partners hope their new venture could become more than an expensive hobby. They won’t discuss finances, but a “substantial” amount of their own money is tied up in the business, Wiseman said.
For now, they have foregone a labeling machine and label the bottles by hand. Mondays, many nights and weekends are when they work together.

Their distilling area and small, tidy office is populated by a large pot still, and lots of tubs and barrels. Beyond, the rest of the old distillery remains, neglected and cluttered and waiting for a possible rebirth. But there is a lot of activity in Barrel House’s little corner.

“I don’t know what it looks like to you,” Wright said to a recent visitor. “It looks wonderful to us.”