“You’re gonna find the world is smolderin’, and if you get lost, come on home to Green River.”
Today we’ll be taking a (virtual) trip down to Owensboro, Kentucky. The focus of our attention will be a resurrected distillery that, after a fitful start marred by less-than-successful innovation, hopes to find firmer footing grounded in history and tradition. The distillery in question is the recently rechristened Green River Distilling Company.
My awareness of this distillery began when they offered, via a PR intermediary, to send me a taste of their whiskey. The sample arrived in ornamental packaging of the type not typically seen outside of the deeper-pocketed beverage conglomerates. The hunter green box contained a 100 ml bottle, an explanatory letter, a poster reproducing a vintage advertisement for Green River, a small tumbler etched with the distillery’s logo, and a certificate commemorating this one of 1,885 bottles bestowed on me:
Like Kentucky Peerless, Green River is resurrecting a brand name from days of yore. Also similar to Peerless, Green River uses the original distilled spirits permit number of DSP-KY-10. Green River’s own site offers a detailed timeline of the history of the name and distillery. To summarize: beginning in 1885, J.W. McCulloch started making Green River whiskey at his distillery in Owensboro. In 1918, a fire burned the distillery and warehouses to the ground; the onset of Prohibition two years later killed any chance of the distillery’s quick revitalization.
In 1936, three years after Prohibition ended, the Kentucky Sour Mash Distilling Company purchased the property and rebuilt the distillery. This was clearly more than the enterprise could handle; the business went bankrupt shortly thereafter. A handful of Medleys bought the distillery, which was subsequently owned by the Renfield Group, Abe Schechter, Glenmore/United Distillers, and once again by Charles Medley.
The final phase of the distillery’s revitalization came in 2014, when the Terressentia Corporation spent $25 mm to acquire it. Ron Call, formerly Quality Manager of Jim Beam, was brought in as the Master Distiller, with his son Jacob by his side. Jacob assumed the Master Distiller role two years later, in 2016.
Initially branded as “O.Z. Tyler” after one of Terressentia’s founders, the whiskey was released at a year old, using the TerrePURE accelerated maturation process. While the details are scant, this eight-day process entails the use of heat, oxygen, and ultrasonic waves to stimulate the whiskey while it is in contact with oak staves within the system. The promise is a four-to-six year taste profile delivered after just 366.33 days.
Though the appeal of the technology was obvious from a business perspective (saving the costs associated with an additional three years of barrel aging in a rickhouse, including loss due to evaporation), the resultant product didn’t win many fans. Though priced competitively ($23/bottle), early reviews of the O.Z. Tyler bourbon were uniformly negative, focusing on the youthful, grainy notes and lack of depth.
The company seems to have shifted tack, complete with a rebranding. “With the support of J.W. McCulloch’s great-grandson,” per Green River, the distillery abandoned the Tyler moniker and went back to the original name in September of 2020. The company is also using the brand’s original tagline “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” perhaps meant to woo back the consumers who rue their purchase of the O.Z. Tyler bourbon?
To get more details, I had a chat with Jacob Call, Green River’s Master Distiller. Our conversation is reproduced below, edited for clarity.
Malt: Tell me a bit about your background?
Jacob: I always knew I was a longtime Kentuckian, seventh generation, but I never could fill in all those gaps. I hired a genealogist and she uncovered my eighth generation was a guy named Samuel Call, who was from Bourbon County, Kentucky. I said, “While you’re doing all this stuff, if you can find anything at all about distilling, that would just be icing on the cake.” She found his will; when he passed away he had 10 kids, so they were all fighting over his stuff. He had two stills, some fermenters; he was in Kentucky in 1791, before it was a state. Effectively, my family is one of the oldest distilling families in Kentucky! No brands or anything like that, that we could find.
In more modern times, my grandfather worked at Jim Beam, my dad worked at Jim Beam. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to come and rebuild this historic distillery. Eric Gregory from the KDA calls it “hallowed ground,” because, 1855, the Medley brands that were produced here… we’re just excited to be able to bring that back. In our rebuild, we were able to save a lot of the buildings here, a lot of the architecture is from the 1930’s. We’re just happy to get to share that story; I think it’s a cool story. A lot of brands are brought back to life; Peerless comes to mind. To be able to bring a brand back to its original home where it all started is pretty rare, I think. I can’t think of any other distiller that’s ever done that.
Malt: Your dad, Ron, was Quality Manager at Jim Beam?
Jacob: He was head of [Quality Control] at Jim Beam. He was kind of Booker Noe’s right-hand guy there. He helped develop Beam Black Label and Beam and Cola. He moved to Florida in the 90’s and went to work for a company called Florida Distillers. He created all the Cruzan rum products down there. I worked for him at Florida Distillers, ran a couple distilleries. That company was sold and he retired. Now he consults in the industry. He works for Pilar rum; he’s their master distiller there.
Malt: How did he get involved with Terresentia?
Jacob: Actually, through me. So I knew Earl Hewlette back in 2014, he was the former CEO. I used to sell him rum, and I knew he had bought this facility. Being from Bardstown, Kentucky, I always wanted to get to come back home to make bourbon. Brought my dad on to help make sure I didn’t screw anything up when we were rebuilding this place. It worked out good.
Malt: Is Green River the only operating distillery in Owensboro?
Jacob: The Glenmore distillery is here, which is owned by Sazerac, but they’re only a bottler. They’re a big bottler – they bottle like 20 million cases – but they don’t distill here, so we are the only bourbon distillery in Owensboro. We’re a heritage member on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, same level as Beam and those guys; I’m on the board of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, so we have a pretty big presence with KDA.
Malt: Can you discuss the decision to change the distillery’s name from O.Z. Tyler to Green River? Any associated changes to the production process, specifically the use of TerrePURE?
Jacob: The Tyler name actually was the founder of the company. He had passed away right before we had opened the distillery, so – really just as kind of homage to him – we named the facility “O.Z. Tyler.” We always had our eye on Green River and were really just lucky enough to get the name back.
As far as the liquid goes: we have always made bourbon in our distillery very traditionally, ever since we opened up. We ground our own grains, we aged it in the barrel, just like a lot of other distilleries do. The TerrePURE process has always just been an extra finishing step that could be done or could not be done; we don’t do it on everything. We didn’t do it on everything. Our product, the Green River brand, we do not use that TerrePURE process on those spirits.
We use it as an option; it is available if some brand owners want to use it. Really, what it’s good at are some of these stave-finishing things, like Sherry cask stave finished, or Port barrel finished, because we just use the staves in that process. We do use it for that if a customer wants to; it’s not required. It’s kind of a last step.
Malt: Starting from the grain: can you talk about the sources, and what drove the decision to have a high rye mash bill?
Jacob: So it’s 70% corn, 21% rye, and 9% malted barley. That’s our standard go-to mash bill. All of our corn is local, 100% Kentucky corn. We work closely with the Kentucky Corn Growers Association. We buy direct from the farmer. It’s yellow #2 corn that we use. The rye, I really wanted something with a bit more spice, pepper to it. That’s why I went with the 21% rye; just a little more “oomph” to it. Also, I think it helps to mature a little bit faster in the barrel by having some of those spicy notes come out.
I will tell you: we run a lot of different mash bills here. We run a high corn bourbons, high rye bourbons, wheated bourbon, rye whiskey. Somebody like Maker’s, they just make Maker’s everyday, but we do a variety of things, because of the nature of our business. We do a lot of contract distillation for other distilleries, brand owners, so we have to be pretty flexible in what we do.
Malt: How do you think about flavor creation at the fermentation phase?
Jacob: We use the sour mash process, so we put some backset back in our cooks each time. We do a three-day set on all of our fermentations, primarily because we’re running full out. We’re running 24 hours, seven days a week, 50 weeks a year. We’ll probably make 92,000 barrels this year, which makes us the fourth largest independent bourbon distillery in the U.S. It is a custom yeast strain; I use a blend of two different yeasts for our recipe.
Malt: What’s the distilling philosophy?
Jacob: We come off of our beer still at 120 proof, and then we come off of our doubler at 138, so we’re a little bit less than some of the other distilleries; they’re probably in the 140 to 150 range. I think we just get a little bit more of those esters and flavors at that lower proof. A lot of things have to go right in distillation. We’ve got a pretty unique system.
That was a pretty good thing; when we bought this distillery, it was the old Charles Medley distillery. It was shut down for 25 years when we got here. My job was to help re-build it. We could do a lot of new things. From the way we ground our grain, we have a certain size screen that I like to use; I like a finer grain. We’ve got a lot of copper in our distillation system. Vendome built the top of our beer still and I put a big four foot copper section in the top of our beer still. We have copper condensers, we have a copper doubler. Copper is a soft metal that takes out a lot of sulfur-y compounds and gives us a pretty sweet new make. A lot of little things that go into the overall finished product.
Malt: Tell me about maturation?
Jacob: #4 char barrels on everything we do, all 53 gallon. We use primarily Independent Stave. We also use Speyside barrels, but primarily Independent Stave. On site, we have 26 acres here at our distillery. We have six barrel aging warehouses, a combination of brick warehouses and metal siding. Offsite, we’ve got another 14 warehouses, metal-sided.
Malt: How much variation in flavor profile have you noticed between the locations?
Jacob: There’s always a sweet spot that everybody likes. We’ve got a few spots near a window on the Southwest side that we like, that get some good air flow. I think air flow is pretty important in the barrel aging process. One thing that we’ve done, that is probably unique, we monitor movement, vibration, etc. in our warehouses. We’ve also added some little weather stations in our rickhouse. We can measure things like temperature, humidity, barometric pressure. It was interesting to me.
We’ve got some brick warehouses and some metal-sided. The top floor on all those warehouses, during the summer, both warehouses were 110 degrees. I thought the metal one might a little bit higher, but it wasn’t. They both have black roofs, so maybe that’s it? Also, the humidity on the first floor was the highest. It’s always been said that your longer, slower aging product, your 10-to-12 year old stuff is on the first floor, and then your younger stuff is on the top floor. We don’t rotate barrels here; I prefer to blend. We’ll take a blend of some different floors to try to get a more consistent product that way.
Malt: There’s a cleanness to the whiskey; is that the result of all the copper contact?
Jacob: I think it is from our new make. We get a lot of compliments on our white dog. People say, “You guys should bottle that!” I think a lot of it comes from that distillation system.
Malt: What’s the planned release strategy?
Jacob: The Green River brand itself will launch in the first part of 2022. TBD on the exact date and timing of that. We’ve been dealing with some glass shortage issues; the wonderful supply chain world that we live in right now. We’ll see exactly when that date is but, you know, first part of next year.
Malt: Will the whiskey be the same four year, 100 proof as the sample I’m tasting?
Jacob: Right now, we’re moving more towards a five-year product. The good thing with the supply chain delays: our bourbon is getting older!
Malt: What’s the intended price?
Jacob: It’s going to be affordable; let’s say between $30 and $40.
Malt: You’ve got some other brands in the portfolio; is this younger whiskey?
Jacob: The Yellow Banks is under three years old. That’s a collaboration we did with the Kentucky Corn Growers Association. Five percent of those sales go back to corn research in Kentucky. It’s just in Kentucky. That product has got a little bit more of a butterscotch note to it. 10 Distillery Road is 70/21/9 product, similar to Yellow Banks. We have another one that’s called Kentucky 10 that’s a wheated. Then, we do private brand stuff, so we do Terry Bradshaw’s Bradshaw Bourbon.
Malt: Where would you like to see Green River in 10 years’ time? Does the age of the product go up?
Jacob: We make a lot of barrels of bourbon. We’re producing over 90,000 a year. We want to keep pushing that envelope. It’s a balancing act; you’ve still got to pay some bills. We sell off a lot of our product. The brand itself, the Green River brand, will continue to evolve and get older. I think you’ll have different expressions of that brand at some point. The sweet spot is that five-year mark and even older; as we continue to age bourbon, we’ll have even older stuff come out over the years.
Thanks to Jacob for sharing his time and insights.
Now for a taste of bourbon: this is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, with the label indicating this is a “Barrel Pick,” though without any barrel-specific details. The mash bill is 70% Kentucky corn 21% rye, and 9% malted barley. This is aged four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). I will be evaluating this using a hypothetical price of $35, the midpoint of the range provided by Jacob.
As noted above, this sample was sent to me free of charge, which – per Malt policy – does not impact my notes or scoring.
Green River Distilling Company Straight Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-light golden maize.
On the nose: This has a unique note that sits somewhere between minty and fruity. I am getting peppermint candy canes and lemon juice. There’s a subtly spicy accent of cinnamon, as well as some very pretty floral aromatics. With time, a faint wisp of black licorice creeps in to complement the candied notes, with the combined effect reminiscent of Good & Plenty candy. There’s a gently yeasty note hovering around the top of the nose, as well as some smoky and meaty notes of beef brisket anchoring this below.
In the mouth: Starts light and lean, with a cinnamon candy note providing a gentle tingle on the tip of the tongue. There’s a spicy woodiness that meets the cinnamon, with the two intertwining and winding together up the tongue. Some autumnal notes of fallen leaves and another smoky note (this time of roasted chipotle pepper) provide intrigue. At the top of the tongue, this tacks back toward the candied note, with the aforementioned accents weaving in and out through the relatively long finish. A subtle stony note provides a drying influence on the palate, lingering particularly on the roof of the mouth.
Conclusions: This is a very delicate, light-bodied bourbon, which is not to say that it’s bland or flavorless. It’s not; there are plenty of intriguing notes here that emerge with some patient, attentive sniffing and sipping. Some wood-forward aspects are the principal indications of the whiskey’s relative youth, though it bears noting that the flavor development here is far superior to some other comparably aged craft whiskeys that I have tasted.
To the extent that this is indicative of the level of quality we can expect from the forthcoming Green River bottling, I’m happy to recommend that those looking for a taste of history through the lens of a solid, affordable bourbon pick up a bottle for themselves. In recognition thereof, I’m awarding this a positive score.
Photos courtesy of Green River.