Part II of our Interview with Town Branch Distillery of Lexington, Kentucky
By Richard Thomas
This continues our interview with Mark Coffman (Engineering Director) and Ken Lee (Master Brewer) of Town Branch Distillery, the first bourbon distillery to operate in Lexington, Kentucky in more than 50 years, and makers of Town Branch Bourbon, Pearse Lyons Reserve, and other whiskey products.
RT: What is your favorite part of being a distiller and brewer at Lyons Spirits/Town Branch Distillery?
KL: They both have their own sets of charms. The charming thing about the brewing part to me is just how ancient it is. And the distilling part, it’s somewhat historical, as far as I’m concerned about the charm part of it. I see it almost as an extension of brewing, how to further enhance some sources of alcohol and how to preserve them.
It’s new and charming, especially bourbon. It has this local history. Bourbon County, Kentucky was this huge county, and then when the whiskey made in Bourbon County was sent down to New Orleans, and people started associated the name “Bourbon” with this whiskey made in central Kentucky, and how that all came about. With the bourbon especially, it’s the history of it being Kentucky-based that’s charming.
RT: What is the hardest part?
KL: Tends to be the human element, I guess. Trying to get people trained so you can trust them to make this stuff for you. You know, it would be impossible for either Mark or myself to be here 24 hours a day. You know, getting some people on board who know how to manipulate these natural processes using our system, and with our personality.
Other than that, no, it only has its moments. Overall, it’s not a bad gig. How can it be a bad thing to make beer and whiskey all day?
RT: “Sipping whiskey” is a common phrase, conjuring images of sitting out on the porch and unwinding with a finger or two’s worth in the tumbler. What qualities would you personally want in a nice sipping bourbon?
KL: It’s a balance of flavors that’s nice to have. On a personal level, I think it’s the sweet, predominately sweet. It’s that image of relaxing with that kind of a drink. Spirits, in my view, are more oriented towards that kind of a leisurely activity. […] When you get to spirits, I think that is really focused on the relaxing side of life, the kick back side of life. So something sweet, something that would, in my case, compliment a cigar.
These things are meant to enhance life. People can pick whatever they want, just to enjoy that moment, that period of time.
RT: Given that you make an American single malt, do you have any interest in Scotch or Irish whiskey? Any favorites? What qualities do you look for in a Scotch?
KL: Yes to that. I’m going to have to say yes, out of respect for most anything that someone else is making, you have to respect the whole [whiskey] culture. I try never to say anything negative about fellow brewers, it’s hard work and it has its traditions, and same thing on the spirits side. Whether [what they are doing] becomes a personal favorite of mine, that may or may not happen. But I have plenty of respect for what other people are doing, and the history of where their particular product is coming from.
You have to respect what Jamesons has done, you really do. I would go with [them]. I really like that, that balance of flavors, and for me, that sweet side.
MC: We will be introducing a Rye Whisky in the second quarter of 2013. We have had this aging now for four years and is nearing its ripe age for tasting.
KL: There have been ideas and talk that Dr. Lyons might send an entire distillery to Haiti. So that’s getting into the Haitian rum business. The man is so full of ideas; you never know what’s going to come.
RT: Since your bourbon barrel ale predated the opening of your distillery, the bourbon barrels used weren’t from your own operation. Who did you get them from? Are Town Branch barrels being used for the bourbon barrel ale now, and to what extent?
KL: Mostly Woodford. We are now putting our Town Branch barrels into production of the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.
RT: Why do you use Haitian coffee in Bluegrass Sundown?
KL: After the Haitian disaster, we established a working relationship with an independent coffee co-op. At one time Haiti had one of the highest exports of coffee in the world. Governments and politics took its toll where it really killed this once thriving business. We are looked at how we can help and this was by importing, processing and marketing the coffee. All the money proceeds go back to them, and it supports 6,000 families. This is how we wished to help out by making that a sustainable business and supporting our efforts in two elementary schools.