Brothers Wright Distilling Co. in Aflex, Pike County, Kentucky has announced they are going to build a new $38 million distillery and visitor center in the mountains of Appalachia. The distillery will be located along the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. The project will be built upon 1,200 acres that were once home to a coal mine.
Company Co-Founders Shannon and Kendall Wright plan to construct a 12,000-square-foot distillery, a rickhouse, welcome center, museum, and restaurant on a 20-acre tract. Future plans also include lodging and an underground visitor experience inside the mine.
Wright Brothers to Age Bourbon Whiskey Underground – Will that Idea Fly?
What will make this distillery unique is that the Wright brothers will be aging their bourbon in a 1,400 acre rehabilitated underground coal mine on their property. This massive labyrinth of mines helped to power America’s industrial growth from 1913 through 1946. More than 100 years after construction, the mine’s internal dry-stacked rock walls remain intact, and the site already serves as home to the first barrels of the company’s own four grain mashbill bourbon, which was distilled in Pike County.
“From 1913 to 1946, more than 23 million tons of coal were mined out of this property,” said Brothers Wright Distilling Co-Owner and COO Kendall Wright. “Miners from all over the world traveled here to work, live and provide fuel to our nation during its greatest period of growth. We feel there is something special about honoring the work completed here over a century ago with a completely unique bourbon experience.”
“My brother and I have been working on Brothers Wright Distilling Co. for a while,” added Brothers Wright Distilling Co-Owner and CEO Shannon Wright. “We started buying [barrels] from a local distiller for the last two to three years. We have some of his mash bill and we just started putting it out to market this year. It’s been going really well; we’ve had a lot of interest in it as we are trying to build the brand up.
“We ordered a Vendome still for our new distillery a while back. It’s done, we have all of our fermenter tanks, and we are ready to go. We are going to put it on our property where the mine is at.
“Everything will be all new on the property. We are trying to mimic an old mine, a ‘tipple’ mine location with kind of an industrial look. A tipple mine is where the coal would come out to be loaded on a train or a barge. We are coal heritage people here. My family was all miners, so we are trying to lean into our family heritage and history.
A Connection to a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer – Lincoln Henderson
“This all comes back to a man named Lincoln Henderson [of Brown-Forman and co-founder of Angel’s Envy]. Lincoln was good friends with my brother Kendall. Lincoln would come over and sit at our tailgates at University of Kentucky football games. He would come over and have some of Kendall’s moonshine and we would talk. Lincoln always said he wanted to go to Eastern Kentucky and age bourbon in a coal mine and have a coal mine theme. He and Kendall would talk about that at length.
“We ended up with this property and this property has a 100-year-old mine on it that is still like the day they walked away from it. It is amazing, no faults, it’s just a beautiful mine. When we walked in and saw this mine we thought, this is where we need to do that [age whiskey].”
How on Earth Can You Age Bourbon in a Cave?
Shannon knew the next question that was coming. How on earth can you age bourbon in the climate of a mine?
“Everybody’s first question is, ‘How is this going to effect the aging of bourbon and how is a constant 60 degrees going to help?’” asked Wright. “There are a few things with a mine. Yes, it is 60° constant. The humidity is perfect, everything else is great. You know that in a barrel up to 80% of the flavor comes from the barrel is what most people say as the white dog travels in and out of the barrel. At 45° it doesn’t go in and out of the barrel, it doesn’t react with the wood. In Kentucky maybe for up to five months of the year it’s not going to go in and out of the barrel. At 60°, you know it has the ability to do so, so it’s not going to drop below that. What we can do is heat those areas of the mine up to over 100°. I can heat it up for whatever time I want to heat it up and I can drop it down to let it cool back down to 60°.
“Another thing in a mine is everything is ventilated; you have airflow going up one entry and down another entry which is basically a road. With the airflow, if you are in a regular mine and you go through a stopping door, a ventilation door, your ears will pop because the barometric pressure changes. You can change the barometric pressure by just changing the heat temperature of the airflow by opening doors or windows and changing the ventilation. You can push and pull on those barrels with barometric pressure. It happens every day in a mine, as you pass through a stopping your ears will pop because the pressure is different on the other side of that stopping.” A ‘stopping’ is typically a block wall with a walkthrough door in it.
Shannon added, “It’s a lot of mining information, that’s what we do with Wright Concrete. We work in the mining sector; we work in mines all over the world. We couple that knowledge with bourbon and what it does in a barrel. It’s a unique opportunity, we have some bourbon in barrels in the mine now.
Brothers Wright Distilling Co. Renderings
“The heat to cycle the underground barrels will come from radiant heat in the floor with PEX tubing in the concrete. The floors will be concrete, the walls will be concrete, and the top will be sprayed concrete. That’s what we do with our existing construction business. It will basically be a concrete structure underground. We’ll be able to heat zones just like you can heat zones in a house or a building. We’ll be able to heat those zones to any temperature we want. We’ll recycle the heated water off the stills. The water that you are trying to cool anyway, we’ll use for heat cycling.”
The mine is not a deep mine where you go down an elevator shaft it is what Shannon says is a ‘drift mouth mine’. When you enter the mine, you start on grade and then walk straight ahead into the mine.
These mines are in exceptional condition. “They have 12’ ceilings, with 20’ wide entries, and hand laid rock that was put in place by Italian masons, by 1910 immigrants,” stated Shannon. “It’s all still completely intact. We were really stunned. There is old glassware, old wooden casks, old shovels that were there 100 years ago. It’s really something special.”
Altogether, the project encompasses a 1,400 acre mine. The initial part of the mine that Wright Brothers is developing in Phase 1 & 2 includes about 20 acres of storage. Needless to say, if the project is successful, they will have plenty of room for expansion.
Is Brothers Wright the 1st to Heat Cycle Aging Whiskey?
On the surface, this idea sounds a bit out there but, if you follow the distilled spirits industry you know that heat cycling of barrel warehouses has been going on since the late 1800s. That’s not the same thing as maturing barrels in a mine or cave but there is a lot of history with heat cycling. Maker’s Mark Distillery, Buffalo Trace Distillery, Brown-Forman Distilling and Michter’s Distillery just to name a few heat cycle their whiskey warehouses.
Maker’s does it in their Whiskey Cellar to help finish whiskey that has been aged in traditional warehouses. The Maker’s Whiskey Cellar was created when they blew out part of a mountainside to build a new warehouse. Three sides are new and the backside is the mountain, dripping water and all. The top of the building is covered in earth to help keep the cellar cool at around 55°. Maker’s ages Maker’s 46, Private Select and there newest release Cellar Aged in there. You can learn more about the Cellar Aged bourbon here.
Buffalo Trace just released their Eagle Rare 25. It’s a 25-year-old whiskey that was aged in a traditional warehouse until at about 2018 then it was moved to Experimental Warehouse P where it was kept in a secluded, temperature controlled room to allow it to get that extra age without getting over-oaked. You can learn more about the new Eagle Rare 25 release here.
And finally, Michter’s Distillery heat cycles their bourbon whiskey. According to Michter’s Master of Maturation and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer Andrea Wilson she believes, and has the science to back it up, that heat cycling mimics the addition of six months of maturation for every year that they heat cycle. In other words, with heat cycling, if the bourbon was in the barrel for six years and they heat cycle that bourbon for its entire life, it is the equivalent of an 8 to 9-year-old bourbon.
“When we heat cycle, it increases the interaction between the whiskey and the wood allowing us to extract more character from the barrel resulting in a truly rich and exceptional whiskey that is not overly oaked,” states Michter’s Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson.
Also keep in mind that heat cycling is not free, it requires energy. Even with recycled heated water from the distillation process it costs time and money to heat cycle an entire warehouse plus by heating up the barrel it increases the loss to the angels. If heat cycling was not effective, these distilleries would not do it.
Brothers Wright Distillery Plans
The entire distillery is outside like a traditional distillery. They are just wrapping up final plans before construction begins. The still is a 14” Vendome Copper & Brass Works column still. That still will be fed by eight 2,750-gallon Vendome fermentation tanks.
Shannon said, “We are looking to put up about 7,500 barrels per year. Once the distillery is completed, we are looking to offer tours. We’ll offer tours and tastings in the visitor center and underground in the mine. We hope to be distilling by this time next year.
“Our family of companies’ footprint in Pike County stretches back over 25 years. We have been blessed to live and work in the mountains of Central Appalachia over that time frame. Working in Kentucky’s coal mining industry has given us the opportunity to grow and support our families as well as our employees and their families. We are excited to marry two of the great state of Kentucky’s industries, bourbon whiskey and coal mining, in a new and unique approach that we hope will bring a new economic opportunity to the mountains that we call home.”
And by the way, Pike County, Kentucky is what the Kentucky Distillers’ Association – KDA calls a moist county. The majority of the county is dry, but the city is wet, making the county moist. As of today, the distillery location is technically dry. There is a vote coming up on the November 2023 ballet to hopefully turn the entire county wet.
“It is great to see the continued growth of our state’s bourbon sector, especially when we have companies that embrace Kentucky’s history the way Brothers Wright Distilling has with this investment,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. “This is an incredibly innovative project that will use a once-forgotten coal mine to bring a great Kentucky product to market. I want to thank the company’s leaders for their commitment and for creating more great jobs for Kentuckians.”
State of Kentucky to Provide Up to $850,000 in Tax Incentives
To encourage investment and job growth in the community, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA) last week preliminarily approved a 15-year incentive agreement with the company under the Kentucky Business Investment program. The performance-based agreement can provide up to $850,000 in tax incentives based on the company’s investment of nearly $37.9 million and annual targets of: Creation and maintenance of 28 Kentucky-resident, full-time jobs ranging from production and maintenance to sales and tours across 15 years; and Paying an average hourly wage of $30.50, including benefits across those jobs. Additionally, 50 construction and mine rehabilitation jobs are projected.
Additionally, KEDFA approved the company for up to $150,000 in tax incentives through the Kentucky Enterprise Initiative Act (KEIA). KEIA allows approved companies to recoup Kentucky sales and use tax on construction costs, building fixtures, equipment used in research and development and electronic processing.
By meeting its annual targets over the agreement term, the company can be eligible to keep a portion of the new tax revenue it generates. The company may claim eligible incentives against its income tax liability and/or wage assessments.
In addition, the company can receive resources from Kentucky’s workforce service providers. Those include no-cost recruitment and job placement services, reduced-cost customized training and job-training incentives.
The company’s owners also operate multiple other businesses all over Kentucky and central and southern Appalachia, including parent company Wright Concrete & Construction, employing more than 200 people across all operations.