Pembroke, KY – Before prohibition, close to 200 small distilleries dotted the Kentucky landscape. These days, there are only 200 nationally. In Kentucky, big businesses control the spirit production market with signature names like Maker's Mark, Jim Beam, and Buffalo Trace. In Christian County, a new distillery is reviving old liquor making traditions. Angela Hatton has this story.
The pungent, woody aroma of a smokehouse. That's the smell that hits you when you walk into Paul Tomeszewski's barn. A concrete floor and corrugated metal walls give the site the look of a warehouse, but a collection of gauges, jars, and giant vats denote a chemistry lab. Tomaszewski is cooking a batch of dark-fired corn whisky. Tubs full of charcoal-tipped white corn wait to go into a 50-gallon soup pot.
"You can make all sorts of different kinds of whiskey," he explained. "You got bourbon whiskey, corn whiskey, rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, and then you can tweak things all about those different types to really, y'know, maximize the amount if you want to make a dozen different kinds."
The ingredients for today's whiskey are corn and malted barley. A few sparrows have found their way into the barn hoping to grab an easy meal from the grain supply. They flutter around as Tomaszewski explains how he got into the business. About two and half years ago, he decided it was time to get out of the army where he'd been an infantry officer.
"With my experience in the military, I was looking at going into some sort of management level or some sales," he said. "And I've got to tell you, I'm not a salesman."
So he decided to do something he could be passionate about. He and his wife bought an old Amish farm near the Tennessee/Kentucky border, close enough to Fort Campbell to hear the planes go by, and Tomaszewski began to learn the liquor trade with advice from experienced artisan distillers around the country and some trusted reference books. Months of experimentation later, he's finally ready to start selling his product.
"You have got to want to do this. There's no oh I think I'll do it' and throw it in and go. Nuh-uh, you've got to be all for it," Tomaszewski said.
He starts with sour mash. It's the leftovers from the last whiskey batch that gives the new batch its flavor. Think a sourdough starter for bread. Tomaszewski tried to explain the distinct sour mash smell: "A musty grainy smell. It's not really pleasing, but it's not something that's offensive either."
He then adds heated and filtered water to the pot, throws in the corn, and brings it to a boil.
"Corn is in the distiller's world the devil of grains to mess with because corn you imagine creamed corn or grits or something like that," he said. "I mean this corn becomes a sludge."
To temper the hard-to-manage corn, Tomaszewski adds malted barley. Malting begins the germination process and then cuts it off before the seed can fully sprout.
"But what that does is when it opens that up it starts exposing the sugars and it gets some enzymes going that are beneficial for making beer or whiskey," he explained.
As Tomaszewski demonstrates, making whiskey is a combination of science and manual labor. When the cooked grain mixture cools, he separates it the old-fashioned way, squeezing water from handfuls of corn.
A compressor pumps the liquid into plastic fermentation containers. Tomaszewski needs to cook three vats of grain to get enough liquid to fill his still. That's the final step towards making this corn whiskey; the still separates the water from the alcohol. The finished product is clear, disorienting for those who may be used to the mahogany color of aged whiskey. Tomaszewski plans to sell that too, as well as fruit liqueurs, and rum. The idyllic country distillery is set to open on Veteran's Day, a propitious sign.
"It's a nice to start making money for a business if you're a veteran," Tomaszewski said with a laugh.
In the next few days, he'll put up the sign that waits in the barn, "MB Roland Distillery." He likes the name: "And I said that sounds like a whiskey. MB Roland."
Maybe he's biased. MB Roland also happens to be Tomaszewski's wife and business partner, Merry Beth. On opening day, the couple will be together giving tastings, tours, and selling hand-made whiskey for the first time in Christian County in over a century.