Wilderness Trail Distillery, an authentic Kentucky distillery

By Co-Founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist

In the late ‘90s, we were in a rock band together and quickly realized we needed to chase another dream. In 2006, our journey began with a passion for creating the finest whiskeys in the world. We are fortunate to be nestled in the rolling hills of Historically Bold Danville, Kentucky, the birthplace of Kentucky, and also being exposed to the Kentucky Bourbon industry for generations while growing up. In fact, Shane’s family has been distilling in Kentucky since the 1940s when his grandmother, Doris Ballard, met his grandfather, Hubert Ballard, at the Kentucky River Distillery when they were 14 and 16 years old. Doris Ballard went on to retire from Stitzel-Weller after a more than 50 year career in the industry. This type of family history provides a lot of our influences today, including some special yeast strains.

Click to read Fred Minnick’s 2019 article about Wilderness Trail as Sweet Mash Disruptors

With strong backgrounds in several sciences and more than 20 years of industry experience, we started our Bourbon path with a lot of yeast strains we collected over the years and combined those proprietary yeast with a premium selection of seed grade corn, wheat and rye varietals grown just a few miles from the distillery on Caverndale Farms. We also source rye from Walnut Grove Farms in Adairville, Ky. Our malted barley, grown in the northern states, arrives at the distillery from a grain elevator in Louisville. Our water comes from Kentucky’s natural limestone springs. We primarily produce two varieties of Bourbon Whiskey and a Rye Whiskey, all of which are made with 100 percent KY Proud®-sourced ingredients.

A noticeable distinction in our process and the flavor of our whiskeys comes from our proprietary Infusion Mashing Process, a process where we use the exact amount of heat to gelatinize starches without degradation of the quality of the grains. We find this process yields a much softer and flavorful distillate when married with our unique yeast strains. Another important distinction is that our steam is chemical-free because we use a clean steam boiler, the first Kentucky Bourbon distillery to do so. With this process, we avoid using boiler chemicals or off flavors. Only pure steam goes into our cooker and into our beer column.

Wilderness Trail Distillery now is a Heritage Member of the Kentucky Distillers Association. The Heritage Level is the highest level in the nonprofit group that unites and leads the state’s signature Bourbon and distilled spirits industry.

To qualify as a Heritage Member, a distillery must have 25,000 barrels of distilled spirits aging in its warehouses. Wilderness Trail’s 168-acre campus has more than 100,000 barrels aging in its six rickhouses.

Another unique distinction our whiskeys have is that we make a Sweet Mash instead of the Sour Mash technique. We were the first of Kentucky’s distillers to embrace the sweet mash process as our sole mashing technique. By not acidifying the mash, we are able to bring more flavors forward from the grains with a softer finish, just as in preparing a fine meal.

All of our whiskeys are distilled, aged and bottled here at Wilderness Trail Distillery in a rich traditional Kentucky environment. You can trust what you are enjoying with our name on the bottle. Our whiskeys are double-distilled in keeping with Kentucky tradition and we have several stills. Our 250-gallon Vendome Pot Hybrid Still produced the very first Bourbons we made. We use that still now primarily to distill and finish our third distillation of our Blue Heron Vodka, which is made from our wheated Bourbon distillate. Since 2016 all of our whiskeys have been distilled through a Vendome 40 foot tall, 18-inch beer column still and then double distilled continuously through our 250 gallon copper doubler. We have expanded our production to include a new 40 foot tall, 36-inch continuous beer still and 500 gallon doubler to increase our production output. That allows us to have a smaller more flexible system and a large production system, between the two we can produce 216 barrels per day.

We proof our whiskeys down with limestone-filtered spring water to enter the Independent Stave Company 53-gallon toasted and #4 charred barrels at 110 proof for our Bourbons and 100 proof for our Rye Whiskeys. We understand that the 100 proof entry into the barrel is the lowest in Kentucky for Rye Whiskey. More importantly, we just know it tastes better. Another more notable distinction of Wilderness Trail is that we have multiple aging rickhouses onsite and we have chosen to mature our Bourbons to a minimal of 4 plus years old before releasing any Bourbon. Our goal is to age our whiskeys an average age of 6-8 years for our standard releases.

Our Stills

We have three Stills, all from Vendome Copper and Brass from right here in Kentucky. They are: our original 250-gallon hybrid pot still and 16-plate rectification columns, and 18-inch and 36-inch continuous column stills.
Our copper continuous Bourbon columns make all of our whiskeys and our pot still produces our Harvest Run and completes the final distillations for our Blue Heron Vodka, which is first double distilled as our wheated Bourbon off our 18-inch column still.
The pot still offers a more floral expression in distillation for whiskeys and adds more complexity after aging, whereas whiskey off the columns is lighter in body with a more balanced complexity and more consistent, not to mention that the columns are more efficient and able to produce more.
Both our columns and doublers distill our whiskeys at 135 proof. Our 18-inch Bourbon column gives us a 12-barrel small batch and our 36-inch still cranks out 60 barrels per fermenter. We use both column stills for flexibility of different mash bills, batch sizes and being able to run a stronger mix of wheated- and rye-based whiskeys at the same time, off two separate systems for a total of 216 barrels per day when running 24 hours per day.

The Distillery scene