Seven years ago, Jack Wells and a friend were drinking bourbon in his basement when he suggested they build a distillery. Three years later, they opened Boone County Distilling Co. and barreled their first whiskey on October 3, 2015. They’ve since established a brand by selling sourced whiskey and retelling history. Using the tagline “Made by Ghosts,” the distillery pays homage to Boone County’s bygone Petersburg Distillery, launched by brothers William and John Snyder in 1833. “A lot of history on the back of bottles is made up, but ours is real,” Wells says. Today, with seven full-time employees and an old-school pot still, the distillery fills 30 barrels a month and will potentially release its first house-made bourbon next fall.
Here’s a look inside the distilling process:
Each cook requires roughly 850 pounds of grain. The mash bill (recipe) for whiskey and bourbon involves 74 percent corn, 21 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley. A mill grinds the grains separately before dispensing them into the 500-gallon cooker.
The corn and rye, plus 300 gallons of water and 80 gallons of backset (liquid from a previous distillation), are cooked at 210 degrees for 30 minutes. Once it cools to 150 degrees, malted barely is added. Yeast is added at 80 degrees. At 72 degrees, the mash is pumped into one of four 500-gallon fermentation tanks.
Over the next three to four days, the yeast eats the grains’ sugars, which causes the mash to bubble and acquire a sour taste. When the sugar levels read zero, the mixture, which is now called distiller’s beer, is pumped into the 500-gallon pot still.
Nicknamed “The Bear” after William Snyder’s pet bear, the pot still cycles through a six-hour wash run to extract the alcohol and pump it into a 150-gallon receiving tank. This is repeated four times; four 125-gallon batches of 70-proof low wine then go back into the still for an eight-hour spirit run, the final distillation step.
The alcoholic liquid, or distillate, finishes the spirit run at about 135 or 145 proof. The distillate is cut with deionized water to 120 proof and then either processed and sold as whiskey or barreled in brand new charred oak barrels and stored in the rickhouse to age into bourbon.
The liquid left in the still after the initial wash runs, called spent mash, is separated into thin stillage and thick stillage and pumped into two tanks outside. The thin stillage is used as backset for the next cook. The thick stillage goes to a local farmer, who blends it into his feed.
To make gin, the pot still is filled with grain-neutral spirits and the gin basket is filled with botanicals. Steam from the still passes through the basket to extract flavors from the botanicals before condensing into liquid. The gin, which comes off the still at 140 proof, is cut with water to 98.
Bourbon barrels are drained into a trough. The bourbon is filtered before it’s pumped into a tank, weighed, and cut with water to the desired proof. A semiautomatic bottling machine fills six bottles at a time before each bottle is sealed by an automatic corker and hand labeled.