Illegal moonshine to award-winning bourbon: A taste of the B-Line
Enjoying a Kentucky bourbon is one thing. Learning about how it got from barrel to rocks glass? That’s just as much fun. As part of my partnership with meetNKY, I went behind the scenes of a B-Line favorite, Neeley Family Distillery. Watch the video version, A Taste of the B-Line with Kathrine – here.
The Neeley Family Distillery sits right next door to Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky.
And that “family” part of its name is pretty important.
Eleven generations of Neeleys have been moonshiners. Most of them – not of the legal variety.
“My parents left the mountains, along with Pawpaw here, in the late 80s and came up here,” explains Royce Neeley, eleventh generation moonshiner and master distiller at Neeley Family Distillery.
“They brought the family distilling history and stuff with them, and then we decided to open the doors up and take it public in 2015.”
That’s when Royce’s family business went legal. Two years later, they opened the distillery in Sparta, bottling up all of that history – the recipes, the trial and error and the tradition. With a twist, of course.
Royce says they hit the ground running with moonshine immediately. “I didn’t change anything at all from the way that I made it illegally to when I made it legally. Now, then we come into bourbon.”
“So the bourbons are a brain child of mine. I designed all of those,” Royce explains. Neeley has two bourbon recipes.
“And we actually just won two major awards at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, knocking down gold medals for our both our bourbon recipes, the wheated and the rye in the 10 year old and under category – which, for a 2 year old bourbon is pretty impressive.”
That’s right – a two year old bourbon winning international awards. So, how does that work? To hear Royce explain it, it’s part math, part chemistry, part cooking and part being incredibly particular.
Like using cypress open top barrels. They can be temperamental, but wild yeast can live in the wood. Royce points out, “That allows us to keep the same flavor profile in the wintertime as we do in the summertime, because in the winter, the wild yeast goes dormant.”
He grows that yeast, which be brought from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, right there on site. That means his moonshine tastes just like his great-great grandfather’s.
Royce uses certain barrels to age the bourbon. They’re made just down the road, and he worked on getting a specific char that would come cross in their bourbons. He tested local well water to make sure it had the right amount of limestone. “All those factors combine together to produce a bourbon that has that old school taste to it,” Royce says, “which also means it tastes better at a younger age.”
Inside the distillery, big cypress barrels are filled with sweet mash, where it will sit and fermens for about five days. Royce is particularly proud of their triple-pot distilling process, which he says no one else in Kentucky does.
“The pot stills, we call them the twins, and that big all copper one … it’s called Old Browney, after my great grandfather’s gun he’d pack to the stills with him.”
Moonshining in the mountains isn’t for the faint of heart.
Moonshine and bourbon are just the start. The Neeleys have just released its award-winning absinthe. Sure, it’s an unusual addition for an eleventh generation moonshiner, but just like Neeley bourbons, its absinthe is turning heads.
“We are the only distillery in the United States to ever win a double gold medal in absinthe.” The spirit was just legalized in 2007, so frankly, it’s new to everyone. But Neeley figured it out quicker than the rest.
They make it on a French absinthe still from the 1890s, the only one of its kind in north America. Even after 100 years, the Neeleys are still trying something new.
Royce and Papaw take us out to the rick house to show their handiwork. “Twelve hundred barrels here, all distilled by Papaw and I.” Papaw (Earl Sizemore) is 78 and works at Neeley Family Distillery every day.
Even with 1200 barrels lining the walls, the success the Neeleys have enjoyed means they need to make room for more. Just this week, they started building a second rick house on the property.
Being one of the distilleries on the B-Line helps them bring in new customers, and share that success with the other businesses.
“I think we make as good of – if not the best bourbon here in Kentucky – right up here in Northern Kentucky,” Royce says. “(the B-Line) has been a big deal for us. I mean, not only do we draw people down, but we’re sharing the culture of Northern Kentucky and the bourbon history that this area has always had. That’s a really cool thing for people to get to see.”
You can try the dozens of flavors of Neeley moonshine, moonshine cream, bourbon, absinthe and more at the bar as you walk in. Royce’s wife Rebekah poured us adult root beer floats – with bourbon ball moonshine cream.
We were not disappointed.
“We had family members killed, put in jail,” Royce says. “My dad grew up in a lot of hard times because of the moonshine and whiskey making, We’re proud to take that 11 generations of history and bring it to something the family can be proud of.”
There’s a story around every turn at B-Line distilleries, bars and restaurants. In fact, if you haven’t checked out our stop at the Tousey House in Burlington, Ky, read it here. When you visit any of the establishments, don’t forget to get your B-Line passport stamped. Each stop has its own flavor … so find your sipping point.
I know I did.