Woodford native’s bourbon ‘burns blue’
When Sam Rock was growing up, he spent many hours exploring areas like the Old Taylor Distillery off McCracken Pike, with no idea that he’d one day follow in the footsteps of Col. E.H. Taylor. “I would fish on the pond behind Woodford Reserve 20 years before it was Woodford Reserve. It was just a moss-covered pond. Of course, any teen that grows up in Woodford County would have been on the Old Taylor property at one point down there,” he said. “I’ve been all around that property that is now Castle and Key (Distillery).” Rock didn’t immediately take to bourbon-making, however. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University, then a law degree at the University of Kentucky (UK) and put the latter to use until 2012, when Bluegrass Distillers went into business. Actually, the 1989 Woodford County High School graduate still practices law, in part to use the proceeds to help fuel Bluegrass Distillers. Rock said a few years before the company started, Nathan Brown, who’s in the reclaimed wood business, had called him. Rock was living in Atlanta then, but wanted to come home to rejoin his wife-to-be, Keely, who’d come to Kentucky to attend Midway College. Brown had an idea: he was considering taking down one of the old buildings at Old Taylor. “He said, ‘You wanna go?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know this place. I’ve been around it,” Rock said. “We were out there just kind of walking around and started talking about the bourbon business.” Rock said he was initially wary of getting into the industry, saying there was a low barrier to entry and that too many engaged in unethical practices and produced inferior products. “We wanted to be in a business that we enjoyed and people wanted the product and the service and that there was a high barrier to entry,” Rock said. They considering purchasing and labeling bourbon for their clients, but eventually Rock, Brown and a now-former business partner decided to do more than produce expensive business cards. By then, a series of coincidences led Rock to believe his interest in bourbon was more than a hobby. He’d purchased a home in Louisville from a former master distiller, learned a neighbor’s father was the former chief executive officer of Glenmore Distillery, and had a law partner, Tom Bulleit, who was bourbon-bound. “I remember when I went into his office and he showed me the bottle and was like, ‘I’m trying to make this brand. I’m tired of lawyering.’ And that was Bulleit Bourbon,” Rock said. Rock and company decided to take the plunge. “We just kind of looked into the mechanics of the business. For me, the process of making bourbon seemed really simple and straightforward. … You cook it, you ferment, you age it, the barrels do the work, and then you sell it,” Rock said. “I’m a contractor also, so I figured I could get this stuff built. None of the things seemed outside of the scope of reason. Whether that was really reasonable, I don’t know if that was the case,” Rock said, laughing. They leased and renovated property on West Sixth Street next to the brewery named for that Lexington street, and in 2012, Bluegrass Distillers was born. Much of the next year was spent testing mash recipes, and Rock said spirits really began to pick up when they brought in UK chemical engineering students. A friend from Woodford County had taken a distillation class and asked her professor if he had any students who’d like to learn and earn in a start-up distillery. He did – and they did. “They would just come over during the day and kind of distill all day. At this point, I had an office and would tell them what to do. We were kind of making mixtures in crock pots and five-gallon buckets …” Rock said. “We started out with one piece of corn and were trying to figure out how much heat it took to get the corn broken down, because you’re really trying to get to the minimum. You don’t want to put more energy in than you have to.” They tried flake grain, a pre-cooked corn not easily available in Kentucky. “We were trying to basically figure out a way where we could boil water, add it to the grain and not have to boil the corn,” Rock said. He found a flake grain producer in Pennsylvania, who told him it was used primarily as feed for milk cows and wondered what Rock wanted it for. “We then … got more equipment, and we’ve been just kind of Frankensteining this thing,” Rock said. Rock said since then, they’ve been purchasing a specially ground corn between the consistencies of corn meal and corn flour from Woodford Feed. “They do a bunch of work to make it work for us, which is really great,” Rock said. Their first batch of bourbon went on sale in November of 2015, and in September of 2016, they began selling a bourbon made of blue corn, thanks in part to research by the UK students. “… It did have a slightly different taste as a ‘white dog,’ when it’s coming off the still,” Rock said, explaining that white dog is the name of the spirit before it’s aged in wooden barrels. The final product of moonshiners, for instance, is white dog. “So the white dog had a slightly different taste that was lighter for the same proof. So we thought, ‘You know what, that might translate into a bit of a softer product,” Rock said. Today, Bluegrass Distillers sells high-rye, wheat, malt and blue dog bourbon whiskeys, and a bourbon cake Rock said was inspired by the rum cakes he tasted during a visit to the Caribbean. There are also t-shirts with the inscription, “Our bourbon burns blue” that Rock said was a reference to a whiskey testing process, not the blue corn bourbon. Seven employees, all college students save for the distiller, work there, with one serving as a greeter and tour guide for visitors on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Getting on the Bourbon Trail was a feat in itself, and happened only after an inspection by members of the Kentucky Distillers Association. “I like the experience. I love being on The Trail … and so people come in and they basically want to talk about bourbon and the science of bourbon,” Rock said. “I love … explaining the science aspect to people, because they walk in and they’re used to just seeing this brown bottle, and that’s what they know. But they’re here to find out how it got there. And I think that’s the most interesting part about it.” Rock said his company may need more space by the time the lease on their present building expires in 2019. “You outgrow things. You need a bay door. You’ve got to put silos up to keep corn. We’re still heaving it in in 50-gallon bags,” he said. He’ll continue to keep busy. In addition to his law practice and bourbon business, he and Keely have an 18-month old son, Sam. (Asked whether they added bourbon to milk during Sam’s teething times, Rock laughed and said, “She wouldn’t let me.”) In November, Bluegrass Distillers will release a high rye, two-year aged bourbon, and by then, Bluegrass Distillers should be in the black, Rock said. “And that’s a big deal, because we won’t have to put any money in it. Our wives will be appreciative, you know,” Rock said with a laugh.