Downtown craft distillery offers tours, award-winning spirits

Steve Whitledge hooks bottles up to a machine that will fill them at Corsair Artisan Distillery on Nov. 9. All of the alcohol the distillery produces must be bottled by the one machine with four spigots.

Casey Downey

When Tennessee laws kept at-home beer brewers Darek Bell and Andrew Webber from opening a whiskey distillery, they didn’t give up. They brought their dream of opening a craft distillery to downtown Bowling Green.

What started as an interest in home-brewing quickly evolved to bold experimentations with whiskey that is now making waves internationally.

In the five years since it has been open, Corsair has claimed more than fifty awards for the integrity of their spirits. They were recently awarded the titles of Craft Distiller of 2013 and Whiskey Brand Innovator for the years 2013 and 2014 by Whisky Magazine.

Steve Whitledge, a WKU alumnus, is tour ambassador and an assistant distiller. He is one of five full-time employees at Corsair and is well-versed in the scientific and creative processes that fuel their success. Formerly a high school teacher of chemistry and biology, he said he is more satisfied at this job than in a chemistry lab.

Whitledge explained that the distiller has three main goals. The first is to use ancestral grains such as rye, corn and barley. They also create hop whiskeys, as they’ve discovered a way to infuse the “earthy, piney, citrus notes” into whiskey.

Thirdly, they enjoy seeing what effects smoke has on the spirits. They have a smoker where they use various types of wood as fuel to smoke the barley.

In their top-selling item, the scotch-inspired Triple Smoke Whiskey, they infuse whiskey with three parts barley that have been separately smoked with peat, beechwood and cherrywood.

“It’s one of my favorites this time of year,” Whitledge said. “It has a campfire taste.”

Pumpkin Moonshine is a seasonal specialty at Corsair. Pumpkin puree is added directly to the pot of the still while all-spice cinnamon clove is added to the vapor basket, where it is later infused into the mix.

They use Pumpkin Moonshine to make another seasonal favorite, Old Punk Pumpkin and Spice Flavored Whiskey, simply by aging the moonshine in rye barrels.

The barrels they use are smaller than ones at larger distillers. Places like Maker’s Mark will typically carry 53 gallon barrels while Corsair holds between 15 and 30 gallons. This cuts time from the aging process of spirits from five years to less than 12 months.

Whitledge explained that if they had gone with the larger barrels, then they would not have had their first batch until this year, so choosing a smaller barrel for a better liquid-to-barrel ratio was a start-up business decision.

Corsair is not limited to experimenting with whiskey and moonshine. They also make gin, rum, vodka and absinthe. In processing spirits beyond whiskey and bourbon, they infuse flavors and aromas from many natural botanicals. Some of these ingredients include: tarragon, fennel seed, licorice root, chamomile, vanilla bean, orange peel, lemon peel and hibiscus flower.

Just as awards keep piling up for the distillery, the amount of orders seems to be doing the same.

According to Whitledge, they processed 6,000 cases of spirits last year, each case holding six bottles. Sales for this year are projected to be around 10,000 cases. They are currently working in their busiest time of year, with a demand of 3,000 cases to put out between November and the beginning of January.

But the downtown distillery does not have to bear the weight of these orders on their own, as changes in Tennessee legislation a few years back finally allowed Corsair to set up in Tennessee as the founders, who are natives of Nashville, initially wanted. The Tennessee facility was established three years ago.

Whitledge said the responsibilities between the distilleries are even across the board, except for the company’s only bottling machine being in Kentucky.

Between the five employees, everyone takes responsibility for the distillation, proofing and bottling processes.

Erik Rothfuss has worked at the distillery for three years. He is the distillery ambassador and manages their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“I graduated with a degree in sociology,” Rothfuss said. “Obviously, I’m better off here. It’s the best job in the world.”

Whitledge has an idea as to why people are so fascinated with the craft-distillery movement these days, fueling part of Corsair’s success.

“I think consumers are more educated about what they’re buying than they’ve ever been,” he said. “I think that they care more about what they’re eating, drinking, where they’re putting their money, what their dollars are contributing to.

“Whether it’s beer, spirits, local farms or local restaurants, [people are] putting money back into their community as opposed to some multi-international organization.”