By James Natsis
The story begins in Henderson, Ky., in 1889 when Henry Kraver, a banker by trade, purchased the Worsham Distillery following the death of former distillery owner Elijah Worsham. Within several years, Kraver increased the volume of production from eight to 200 barrels per day, and in 1907, he incorporated it as the Kentucky Peerless Distillery Company.
Kraver enjoyed his life-changing and prosperous venture in the bourbon industry until 1917, when he shut down the operation and sold his equipment to United Distilleries in Vancouver to aid in the effort to conserve corn as part of the war effort. Prohibition laws were implemented during this period, as well, which all but assured the demise of the popular whiskey brand.
Kraver managed to sell most of his stock of 63,000 barrels at the time, which was reportedly used for medicinal practices. Thus put to rest this chapter in Kentucky’s storied bourbon history until almost a century later when a member of the family lineage grew restless after a few years of retirement.
The rebirth of a brand
Although Corky Taylor had no direct connection to the bourbon industry, the great-grandson of Henry Kraver could relate to his family’s past and the Peerless days thanks to numerous mementos of pictures, archive documents, a desk and other objects that remained in the household.
“We always had a lot of stuff from Henry around,” Taylor recalled during a recent interview with IL. “Retirement wasn’t for me — I just needed to get back to work.”
So the idea of reviving the old family distillery caught his fancy. “I just wanted to put on a pair of jeans instead of a suit and have fun,” he said.
So after a career of running a financial services company primarily in Sarasota, Fla., Taylor returned to Louisville where the family lived on and off over the years and crafted his own path along Kentucky’s much traveled bourbon trail with his son, Carson.
The father-and-son team purchased an old warehouse building on 10th and Main streets, just past the Ninth Street divide. The 120-year-old former tobacco warehouse was most recently occupied by S.H.A.P.E. Manufacturing Inc., producing HVAC duct systems for many years.
Carson is a builder by trade, so he “basically designed and built the distillery,” said Taylor. “In fact,” he proudly added, “most everyone who works at this distillery swung a hammer at one time. They care because they helped build it.”
They juxtaposed new materials with old wood beams and planks, bare brick walls, open ducts and nostalgic items of decor to create an ambiance that gives the distillery a hip, urban vibe. But most importantly, the complete process from mash bill to barrel storage and aging is accomplished within the same complex.
After nearly two years of construction and renovation, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. filled its first barrel of bourbon on March 4, 2015, and opened for business on June 3. Resolute in their desire to retain brand authenticity, the Taylors chose to wait several years for their own bourbon to mature rather than to purchase bourbon stock from elsewhere to launch the product.
“It was a business decision,” Corky Taylor said. It was one made with the long term in mind.
Currently, the distillery produces about 12 barrels of product per day and sells various flavored moonshine under the “Lucky” brand name. The first rye whisky will be ready in 2017 for the 100-year anniversary. And the first bourbon will be ready by Derby 2019.
The link between the storied past and the current revival was sealed when Taylor received his great-grandfather’s original distilled spirits plant number: DSP-Ky-50. He felt especially honored by this designation, as he explained that otherwise, Peerless would have been No. 20,812. As a point of reference, he pointed to Jim Beam’s DSP-Ky-230.
A new horizon
Kentucky Peerless Distillery, Falls City Brewing Co., Old 502 Winery and Over the 9 restaurant are all located at the “10th and Main Street Gateway” to Louisville’s up-and-coming Portland neighborhood, and to the Ohio riverfront and the northwestern part of the city where officials and investors are exploring new opportunities. Metro Government issued a request for proposals last summer from firms interested in improving the area under the I-64 ramp between Ninth and 10th streets. And once completed, the casual stroller will pass along a seamless corridor from museum row to this short strip offering a rewarding selection of locally produced wine, beer and bourbon.
The third iteration of “ReSurfaced” took place last fall across the street from Peerless near the riverfront. The three-day event activates public space that is otherwise dormant or underused. The occasion brought unparalleled traffic to Peerless during that period.
“We had people coming through here on those days and returning at later dates for quite a while,” said Taylor. “We are doing nice thanks to support from hotels, Mint Julep Tours and the city. The mayor’s support has been outstanding.”
Kentucky Peerless Distillery is open for tours Wednesday-Saturday from 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Hours will be extended after April 23 to 7 p.m. Tour admission is $12 per person with discounts for children under 18, seniors, military personnel and groups of 10 or more. For more information, visit the website.