While with a tour group admiring Lexington’s brand-spankin’-new Town Branch Distillery last Saturday, in bounded a 60-ish man wearing running tights below running shorts, a jacket and a ball cap.
A laggard late to the tour? A runner thirsty for whiskey instead of water?
Nope. It was Dr. Pearse Lyons, the multimillionaire guy who owns that joint and Alltech Brewing next door (maker of Kentucky Ale). Both business are scions of his much larger animal health and feed company, Alltech, a half-billion-dollar firm he founded in 1980.
Instantly the picture came clear: We’re drinking whiskey on Saturday morning while he’s out running. Discipline and success are no accident, eh?
His face reddened from the morning’s chill and gray hair peeking from below his ball cap, the Ph.D. and author of 20 books looked as ordinary as anyone in the room while lingering near the back of the group, assessing the performance of a new tour guide. (Since opening two weeks before, Town Branch has entertained 800 visitors. It is noteworthy that no one in Saturday’s crowd was from Kentucky other than me.) Moving toward the front where the guide spoke, Lyons interrupted gently and began talking about the distillery like a proud papa.
“This is the first distillery built in Lexington in over 100 years, and it’s set up on the Town Branch River, where Lexington was established more than 200 years ago,” Lyons said in his delicate Irish accent. Joking with the crowd, he added. “There are 4.2 million people in Kentucky, and that’s the same number of barrels of whiskey in the state. Kentucky is the only state in the union where, when you are born, the governor puts of a barrel of bourbon down just for you.”
When he returned to the back of the group, I cornered him and asked why he got into the booze business. Though his Irish parents were teetotalers, his mother’s family had been coopers for five generations. He interned at two of Ireland’s most famous breweries, Guinness and Harp while he earned his master’s and Ph.D. He later worked with the group that designed the Jameson Irish Whiskey factory in Ireland.
Booze-making was natural to him when, in 1999, Lyons bought the defunct Lexington Brewing Co., where he and his son started brewing Kentucky Ale.
“So we bought this place and now this little brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Ale outsells Sierra Nevada and. It’s also the number one-selling craft beer in Ohio,” Lyons said proudly. Capitalizing on the brewery’s proximity to Woodford Reserve Distillery one county away, his crew retrieves its whiskey barrels within an hour after they’ve been emptied and refills them with beer. “You get a good bit of alcohol from those barrels, which is something you can’t do if you shipped them to another state. By the time you got them there, that residual alcohol has evaporated.”
In addition to the current Kentucky Ale line—Bourbon Barrel Ale, Kentucky Ale and Kentucky Ale Light—the brewery is finishing its new Coffee Bourbon Barrel Ale.
“That’s coming in November,” Lyons said. The coffee is the product of a plantation Lyons founded in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in 2010. “We’re making that with our coffee, Bluegrass Sundown. It should be very good.”