Heading roughly 30 miles outside Louisville in the countryside of Shelbyville, a warm red post-and-beam building with exposed timber trusses houses a distillery, backed by a patio lined with rocking chairs. On these inviting grounds sits Jeptha Creed Distillery (https://jepthacreed.com/), a “ground to glass” distillery and farm that officially opened in 2016.
As master distiller, Joyce Nethery’s background and passion for chemistry led to a master’s degree from the University of Louisville’s Speed Scientific School. After working 15 years as a process engineer in industrial scale distillation, she taught high school chemistry and physics for a decade. Through it all, her husband Bruce had a longtime dream of opening a distillery. The further she moved in a life of chemistry, the more the dream began to emerge as a possibility for Joyce. Her upbringing working her family’s farm plays into her work with a range of crops.
Joyce’s daughter, Autumn, joined the family’s farm tradition by becoming a co-founder of the distillery. Autumn studied distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, earned a bachelor’s in marketing at the University of Kentucky, and now oversees marketing and sales at Jeptha Creed. Led by her desire to keep their products authentic and with plans to eventually see their spirits in all 50 states, Autumn is one of the youngest distillery owners in the nation.
At Jeptha Creed, Joyce and team distill vodka, naturally flavored vodkas, pawpaw fruit brandy, Kentucky moonshine in multiple flavors and, since 2019, their first Straight 4-Grain Kentucky Bourbon. (I had fun with the savory, food-friendly spirit of their hot pepper vodka with a corn base, infused with serrano, jalapeno and Anaheim peppers, with a heavy dose of garlic.)
In her own words, Joyce tells us about her journey to distilling, the unique grain she works with, how she differentiates in a bourbon-dominant region and how they are surviving pandemic.
What led you into distilling?
Well, what led me into distilling really evolved from my chemical engineering background and working in the chemical industry doing distillation. My chemical engineering background combined with my husband’s interests, our farm and the heirloom, open-pollinated farming we were interested in doing, kind of evolved into what is today Jeptha Creed.
What got me into chemical engineering was in high school when I took the ACT test. During this test you get a point based on questions you answered pointing to what career field you should be in. The closest career to my point on that ACT test was chemical engineering, and I thought, “What the heck is that?” Luckily, I just happened to have an aunt who was a chemical engineer and was working at a plant in Ohio that made mylar [a polyester film also known as BoPET].
In my freshman year of college during Christmas break, I went to visit her, see what she was doing and what they were producing, and a lot of that mylar they were producing was going into hot dog wrappers. As we left the plant and saw all the processes, it was so cool to me. I loved it and thought, “I can make something that people use every day.” That’s when I decided that’s what I want to do. I’m going to do chemical engineering because people will touch my product every day. So that’s kind of what got me into chemical engineering, which got me on the path that led me to spirits and distilling bourbon.
Tell us what is unique or specific about your distilling and production process.
The thing that makes us unique is our Bloody Butcher corn. It’s an heirloom varietal corn that we grow ourselves. All the corn we’re using in our Jeptha Creed products is estate grown within 10 miles of the distillery on our own farms. It’s open pollinated, which means that each kernel on the cob is a seed. We save the seeds over the winter and plant them back the following spring to get the same exact corn again. This makes us very old fashioned, very sustainable, and seed savers. The flavor profile that we get from the Bloody Butcher corn is just fantastic. It is so unique and it’s what sets our spirits apart.
How is your business affected by — and surviving — the pandemic?
COVID-19 has been such a challenge. One of the things we did immediately was switching 100% into producing hand sanitizer. 100% of the ethanol alcohol we were making went into hand sanitizer, which we did for about a month-and-a-half to two months. I feel great that we did that, and we were able to help our communities, help our firefighters, first responders and people in the medical field.
A couple of other things we had to do affected our front of house, because in addition to distilling our own bourbon and spirits, we have a gift shop, cocktail bar and event space. We had to really change up our tastings and tours. We offer a free tasting and no longer run tours through our production space. We did, however, open to the public our Barrel Tasting Experience that was strictly private before, which has been really good for us. Between adjusting to a tasting and opening up our Barrel Tasting Experience, we are surviving the pandemic and I think we’re going to come out stronger on the other side.
How do you both differentiate and glean from the bourbon-dominant distilling culture and history in Kentucky?
Being in the middle of bourbon country, bourbon is a part of our culture. It’s just part of who we are here in Kentucky. As we were thinking about building the distillery, bourbon has to be our flagship product. However, we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the bourbons by our beautiful Bloody Butcher heirloom corn. What I glean from the bourbon industry and culture is the elegance and refinement. It’s very much a part of who we are. The bourbon industry in itself has been very welcoming to us. It is very warm and there is a lot of hospitality within the industry here in Kentucky. I feel very blessed to be a part of it.
What do you feel are the key elements of getting your brand placed and marketing?
I feel like we are relationship-builders with people and that we are getting placements on- and off-premise based on relationships. Our sales team is visiting people, getting to know them all the time. That’s the thing that does differentiate us is that the flavorings are all natural. We make our blueberry-flavored vodka with actual blueberries, and we make our hot pepper-flavored vodka with three different hot peppers and garlic. We use real produce to make our flavors and not bags of goo. Just getting people to understand what our products are, and that it’s worth their time, energy and effort to have on their store shelves and on their bars. They have to taste it and once they do, people are in. That’s how we do it.”
[Joyce’s daughter, co-owner and Head of Sales & Marketing, Autumn Nethery, adds: “In stores, it’s very important that we do “liquid to lips.” That’s been our biggest selling point because we just don’t have the budget that some of the other competitors have. Really almost like guerilla marketing, just getting our boots on the ground and tasting people has been our biggest selling point. When you hear “flavored vodka,” you can almost roll your eyes sometimes. But for us, it’s just a totally different experience that you would not understand unless you tasted it.”]
How do you envision the world of small-batch spirits evolving in the coming years?
I think small-batch spirits and craft spirits are going to continue to get better and better and gain more respect. I think craft distillers, especially the ones that survive this pandemic, are gaining amazing skills, knowledge, resources and relationships. As time continues, these craft spirits are just going to continue to get better and will just continue to gain respect and be footholds in the industry.