Barrel to Bottle
We are so bound together that no man can labor for himself alone. Each blow he strikes in his own behalf helps to mold the universe.
Jerome K. Jerome
The fulfillment of life lies in work. Society is driven not by the opinions of the powerful, but by the tireless efforts of the honest worker.
As the early morning sun peaks over the horizon, the haze hovering above bristling fields of wheat and corn begins to clear. With his land illuminated, the farmer sets out for today’s harvest. The crop’s journey from the earth to the whiskey bottle is underway.
Whiskey making takes more than grain, yeast, and waterit takes tradition, dedication, and craftsmanship. This centuriesold process relies on a harmony of experienced workers across three settingsrolling fields of grain, fiery barrel factories, and hallowed distilleries shaped by heritage.
These three industries involved in the whiskey-making processfarming, cooperage, and distillingare powered by those who carry immense pride in their work. We connected with them to understand how their labor contributes to a heritage of craftsmanship embedded in the fabric of America.
Tending The Earth
Richard Smith comes from humble beginnings. Raised in a rental house with only the bare necessities, he has worked his whole life to establish a legacy for his children and grandchildren. In 1987, he reached a major milestone by purchasing what is now the Smith Family Farm, a place to forge traditions by harvesting grains and other crops with the help of his family.
It’s more than just a generational farm, Richard explains.
It’s a multigenerational legacy we can all be proud of.
Grain is the prime ingredient of whiskey. Grown in rich soil under the nourishing sunlight of Kentucky, Richard Smith’s wheat and corn are irreplaceable components of authentic Kentucky bourbon. But his motivations for keeping the farm running go much deeper.
We have core values hereour faith in God, and our family, Richard says.
And we understand the importance of keeping this farm and passing it down through the generations.
Richard has seen countless families lose their farms by choice or financial necessity—a reminder of the importance of hard work and heritage.
Over the years we’ve seen so many people sell the farm for money, and when the money gets spent, they don't have that legacy to go back to, Richard says.
Once it's gone, it's gone. Before long, it’s just a memory. That's what I try to impress on my family.
Richard’s grains, the baseline of Kentucky bourbon, are the product of his respect for the land. He was named regional conservationist by the Natural Resources Conservation Service for his commitment to keeping every aspect of his farm—from the soil to the groundwater—clean and healthy for generations to come.
I feel strongly that we are stewards of the land, Richard explains.
And we should be good stewards of the land and pass that responsibility on to the next generation.
Breathing Life Into Wood
In the heart of a Fresno workshop, Jonathan Gonzalez and a crew of coopers combine oak and fire to create perfectly charred barrels that will house whiskey as it ages. Standing amidst the sawdust and staves, he continues a tradition handed down from his father.
I’ve worked here making barrels with my dad for years, Jonathan shares.
He taught me everything I know.
Barrel-making, or cooperage, is a dance of precision and adaptability where wood transforms into vessels of history, color, and flavor. Jonathan and the team at Barrels Unlimited ensure that every barrel is not just functional but a mark of craftsmanship that contributes to the rich, complex taste of whiskey.
Achieving consistency in a dynamic environment is not easy, but the team has years of experience under their belts. With tenacity, they adjust to challenges ranging from material shortages to changes in climate and humidity that can dramatically alter the shape and flexibility of the wood.
There’s a lot of pride with all the guys here, especially since we’ve been doing this for so long together, Jonathan explains.
We know how to get it done the right way.
The fact that there are no training programs for cooperagethe only way to become a cooper is through the oneonone, handson teachings of a seasoned cooperonly adds to the esteem of the job. Pride runs through every step in the process, from shaping the staves to charring and sealing the barrels.
The coopers might not know the final destination of every barrel they make, but at the end of the day, they know they are contributing to something truly special.
It feels good to make something great, Jonathan says.
Crafting a Legacy
In a historic distillery in the bustling heart of Louisville, the farmer’s crops and the coopers’ barrels are put to work. Under the hands-on guidance of master distiller Caleb Kilburn, the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company blends tradition and artistry to create an iconic Kentucky bourbon.
Making bourbon is incredibly specializedit's really an art form, Caleb says.
We’re all welltrained in knowing what the whiskey's telling us. It's strictly the palette and the taste at the end of the day that lets you know how you did.
In many ways, Peerless is not an average distillery. First, there is the processthe distillery uses a unique sweet mash for a nuanced, floral flavor. Distilled and aged at a lower proof than most whiskeys, their bourbon absorbs and develops more character throughout the process.
Then there is the heritage aspect. Carson Taylor, president of Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, is the great-great-grandson of Henry Kraver, founder of the first Peerless distillery in 1889. While that distillery closed in the early 1900s, Carson and his father Corky Taylor revived the family business under the same, historic Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) number50. With over 20,000 DSPs across the nation today, Peerless is truly an original.
Carson has two main motivations for keeping the distillery running.
I’m driven by family succession, he explains.
I'm fifth generation. I have three kids. Hopefully they want to be involved in it someday.
And I want us to put out the best product we can, he continues.
We’re just a small family-owned place competing with the big boys, but we've put our stake in the ground and have proven ourselves. But in general, this is all about the future. It’s the legacy we want to build.
Peerless bourbon represents the same profound appreciation for heritage and honest work that propelled their ancestors to great heights so many years ago. By sticking to traditional methods and embracing a legacy of excellence, they craft artistry in a bottle.
The Finished Product
As the sun sets over the distillery, a symphony of devotion echoes through the air. The hands that tend the fields, shape the barrels, and guide the distillation process are hands of passion, expertise, and reverence.
The people behind each step in the process from barrel to bottle are not just going through the motionsthey are forging and maintaining traditions through raw effort and determination, with respect for the craft as their guiding principle.
From the moment the seeds are sown to the time the whiskey is poured into a glass, the journey is intertwined with a heritage that transcends time. The end result is a bridge between past, present, and future built by those with an unwavering commitment to craftsmanship and a penchant for honest, hard work.