As Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., now located in Louisville, prepares to launch its first bourbon in 102 years on Saturday, June 22, the spotlight shines brightly — and deservedly so — on its young master distiller, Caleb Kilburn.
It’s almost as if Kilburn, 27, was destined for distilling, having grown up on a dairy farm in Salt Lick, Ky., and developing a curiosity for science, biology and mechanics. More importantly, he learned the valuable lesson of hard work — putting in way more hours than 40 a week long before he ever turned 18.
Kilburn was the valedictorian of his high school class and went on to study chemistry, engineering and physics at Morehead State University. After college, he took a class on distilling at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, and he was hooked. He made a few friendships in that class with fellow distillers and others in the industry, and he took on a few apprenticeships before accepting a job a Peerless in 2014. He was only 22.
At first, Kilburn tells Insider, he was there to help finish construction of the distillery, located on 10th Street. His first big project was to set up the distilling equipment, which produced the first barrel of Peerless whiskey in 98 years on March 4, 2015.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Peerless story, here’s a short recap. Peerless Distillery once operated in Henderson, Ky., in the late 1800s and was run by Henry Kraver, businessman, entrepreneur and great-grandfather of current Peerless owner Corky Taylor. It closed around Prohibition.
Taylor, who was retired as of five years ago, decided to resurrect his family’s distillery, with help from his son Carson Taylor, and they chose Louisville as their home base.
Peerless opened in 2015 and began distilling rye whiskey and bourbon. The rye was released in 2017, but bourbon, as you know, had to age just a bit longer to meet the taste requirements set by the Taylors and Kilburn.
Kilburn says it is truly surreal realizing their first bourbon will be out in the market as of Saturday. And they’re all just as eager to release it as bourbon-lovers are to try it. The hardest part, for Kilburn, has been the waiting.
“I am a little surprised we had the patience to wait for it to become mature,” he explains. “Peerless made the decision early on to not only make every drop in house but to also not rush the process, meaning we had to wait for the whiskey to hit its sweet spot. Carson, Corky and I are all results-oriented people, and it felt like this was going to take forever. I’m proud we made the product-wise decision and waited.”
Some new distilleries source their bourbon from other makers to get capital coming in, but Peerless has been adamant, as Kilburn referenced, not to release any whiskey under its name that wasn’t distilled at the facility. Another positive for the master distiller is the confidence the owners have put in him.
“Carson and Corky are very hands-on with business, marketing and design, but they have entrusted me to make the products at Kentucky Peerless,” says Kilburn. “As the master distiller, I am responsible for everything that occurs from grain to bottle, so the actual product is where I get to share my magic.”
The four-year-old, small-batch bourbon is bottled at barrel strength, 107 proof, and is non-chill filtered. It’ll officially be released on Saturday, June 22, at Peerless from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Complimentary tastings of both the rye and the bourbon will be given every half-hour.
Kilburn admits that while he’s obviously tried the bourbon, he doesn’t have a bottle of his own quite yet. Asked how he’ll drink it, he says it’ll probably be neat. But what he’s most excited about is sharing it with people who enjoy fine bourbons.
“Peerless is special for so many reasons. Everything from our deep history to our fascinating processes and everything in between are geared to provide our patrons with the best possible experience (and whiskey) possible,” he adds.
Before the big release day, we caught up with Kilburn to ask him some very important questions …
What was your first concert?
I fell in love with classic rock at an early age. Everyone else in my grade was worried about boy/girl bands, and I was listening to the Beatles, AC/DC and CCR. (I feel like those decisions have aged pretty well.)
When I was in middle school, Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band played a show in Lexington (my first concert) that Dad and I enjoyed so much, we drove to Nashville to catch the next show. Seger still has it!
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
One of my favorite things about the Peerless company culture is the desire to learn, which prompts unprepared talks all of the time. At some point, everyone from distillers to tour guides have been the recipient (or victim) of one of my “chalk-talks.”
Once I start explaining something on my chalkboard, I get on a roll and just get really excited about sharing the science behind whiskey. That is when I get to geek out.
What job would you be terrible at?
Anything that would require me to sit in front of a computer all day long. I grew up on a farm and I would go crazy if I couldn’t get out and physically accomplish something. My favorite days at the distillery are when I get to build, rework or fix a process.
What is your favorite restaurant or bar?
Who can pick just one restaurant in a city like Louisville?!
- Louisville comfort food — Village Anchor
- High-brow Southern — Butchertown Grocery
- Seafood — Riverhouse
- Italian — Volare
- Asian — Joy Luck
- Latin — La Cocina de Mama
- Guilty pleasure — Joella’s Hot Chicken
What is something you think everyone should do at least once?
I feel like everyone probably answers this question with the Derby … so I’m going to go with Thunder Over Louisville. It is an amazing, family-friendly experience (provided that the little ones have proper hearing protection) that should offer something for everyone.
It is hard not to feel patriotic as you stand in awe as our service men and women zoom past in the latest engineering marvels of our armed forces. Couple that with the world’s largest fireworks show, and you’ve got a good time on your hands.
Where would you direct a newcomer of Louisville to get a feel for the city?
I would direct them to one of my favorite experiences in Louisville: Bourbon & Beyond. Maybe I’m biased, but hear me out. If you put a glass of bourbon in someone’s hand and surround them with Southern hospitality and amazing acts, I don’t see how they couldn’t become a fan.
What keeps you here?
All of the above! Louisville is a fantastic place to live that has so much to offer, and there is nothing else quite like it. I get to travel to some amazing cities, but Louisville is just special.