Copper-and-Kings-Lillies

Louisville is bourbon country. It’s also become a center for craft beers.

Barkeep, slide another glass onto the bar.

This spring, a start-up called Copper & Kings will open the city’s first brandy distillery, on East Washington Street in Butchertown.

The venture is the brainchild of Lesley and Joe Heron, whose entrepreneurial résumé has included developing Nutrisoda (a nutrient-enhanced soda that they sold to PepsiAmericas) and Crispin Cider (a hard cider sold to MillerCoors).

Now they’re convinced the world is ready for another brandy – certainly for their brandy.

Do you want an education in everything brandy? Spend an hour, as I did, with these two razor sharp, extremely likable, South African originals.

The word “brandy” is from the Dutch word “brandewijn” – burnt wine. And they’ve been buying up the best unfiltered wines they can find.

Their conversation, in fact, is filled with the vocabulary of the wine world: aromatics, depth, varietals, off-notes.

The unsulfated wine is distilled, at about 135 degrees, until it boils, and then the vapor (which has all the alcohol) is captured and distilled a second time, aged in barrels for two years, and voila!

Photos by Ron Jasin.
Photos by Ron Jasin

But this isn’t just any distillation. On the main floor of their building, just inside what will be three very large glass aircraft hanger doors, are the Herons’ pride and joy, three decorous “onion” copper stills – acquired, by the way, from Vendome Copper & Brass Works, exactly a half-mile away on Franklin Street.

Those will be part of the show – along with passionate discussions of wine, brandy, distilling and rock and roll – when Copper & Kings is open to the public, probably in April.

Right now, there’s not much to see unless you’re a fan of chunks of concrete and construction fences.

But the Herons are true believers, and they can see very clearly what you or I might not be able to see. They see a structure arising from the rubble that contains landscaping, an art gallery, an outdoor deck, tasting rooms, rental areas for meetings or parties, catering facilities, and one of the best rooftop views of the Ohio River in the city.

Future site of Copper and Kings Distillery.
Future site of Copper and Kings Distillery.

However, while Joe can’t wait to show off his distillery, he insists this will not be the “Copper & Kings Experience.” This will be a hard-core, working distillery, eventually producing 200,000 cases a year.

Joe likes to quote Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British quote machine: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”

Brandy is not all that far from bourbon, in taste, texture and smoothness, he said. And his brandy will be aged in bourbon barrels. “We’re not making effing French brandy,” he proclaims. “We want a feisty, rambunctious, American product.”

To that point, the aging brandy will be serenaded by rock music, most likely My Morning Jacket, Joe’s personal favorite.

“There’s a theory,” he says, “called sonic aging, which says that vibration agitates the spirit and causes it to interact with the edges of the barrel.”

Something about exposing more of the liquor to the influence of the oak that improves the aging process.

“I think people will find our brandy smooth and palatable, much like a very smooth bourbon,” Joe says. “I only need one out of every 10 bourbon drinkers to switch to brandy and I’ll be good to go.”

Now it’s up to the marketing to make this venture work. And you get the impression the Herons are up to the challenge.

Public tours will educate and promote, showing off those cool copper vats, the landscaped front garden, and the spectacular rooftop deck.

There will also be an art gallery on the office level. “We’ll be the 21c of distilleries,” Joe says.

The event space, available for rental, will expand the market reach. Joe already envisions some kind of happening during Thunder Over Louisville from that spectacular vantage point.

View from the Copper and Kings tasting room.
View from the Copper and Kings tasting room.

Everything, of course, will include brandy tastings.

But the central stratagem will be inviting Louisville bartenders in, just to talk – and sip. Educating the city’s mixologists about the possibilities of the drink, getting them to recommend and use Copper & Kings, will be the key to acceptance.

They’re even considering having a brainstorming session with barkeeps from the likes of Decca, Proof on Main, Rye, Silver Dollar, et al., to come up with new recipes using his brandy.

“Cocktails are an American invention and artform,” says Joe. “The original mixed drinks were largely brandy drinks. Whiskey and rye came later.”

They’re working on the visual candy, the all-important shape of the bottle, and the design of the label. And they’re tuning into all the 21st century social media – Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, Pintrest – to get the message out.

The message?

copper-potstill-badges“First persuading people that brandy is an interesting drink. The common notions are it’s either traditional and cheap or traditional and very expensive.”

There’s a huge void in the market between Christian Brother, at $15 for 750 millileters, and cognac (like Courvoisier) at $50-$75 for 750 milliliters. Some are even priced in the thousands. (Roughly, 950 milliliters equals a quart.)

“That’s the market space we want to fill,” he says. “I want that Christian Brothers drinker to trade up, to something more special but still affordable. I want that cognac drinker to trade down, to something more affordable but of similar quality.

“And I want the bourbon drinker to trade in, to something new, a sense of variety and experimentation. I’m aiming at the bourbon drinker. That’s why we’re in Kentucky.”

Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.


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