I’ve been writing this column since 2002, and because of it I have been able to meet and even become personal friends with quite a few interesting people.
One of those is bourbon master distiller Steve Nally.
Nally is a big believer in the bottom-to-the-top business approach. That’s the way he did it ... starting at the bottom and working his way to the top.
As a 21-year-old living in Loretto, he needed a job. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do to make a living, but he felt sure it wasn’t going to be in farming. Living only a short distance from Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, he decided that would be a good place to start his search for employment.
For the next 15 years, he was a Maker’s Mark man, eventually becoming the distillery’s master distiller in 1988.
Over his career, Nally did it all.
“My first job there was growing yeast,” he said. “I was a janitor, night watchman, warehouse supervisor, bottling assistant and even a mechanic.”
Nally is proud that at Maker’s Mark he worked at every job at the distillery in Loretto. Ultimately, during his time there, he learned the expertise of developing and making a bourbon recipe.
My friendship with Nally and his wife, Donna, who had become an on-site marketing director at Maker’s Mark, rose to the point where they visited our home in Bowling Green. Later, my wife and I were invited to a birthday party for Nally at his home in Loretto.
As you might imagine, hospitality was abundant.
Listening to some of the locals talk about their moonshine days was a hoot. The truth is some of them were and are distilling some of those fruit-flavored jars that are passed along to family and friends.
Before leaving the party, Nally showed me his bourbon collection, and as I expected it was one worthy of a master distiller.
When the Nallys retired from the bourbon business in 2003, for all practical purposes his whiskey-making days were over. At least so he thought.
In mid-September 2007, his phone rang. It was a caller from Wyoming with an offer Nally couldn’t refuse. The caller wanted he and his wife to come west and open Wyoming’s first whiskey distillery.
“The great thing about this, I was involved from the very beginning,” he said, with an emphasis on the word “very.” “I met with the engineers, architects and building planners with regard to layout and positioning of equipment.”
The Nallys soon headed to Wyoming. It was Kirby, Wyo., to be exact, population 57, to start Wyoming Whiskey.
In 2013, however, another bourbon opportunity presented itself.
Nally was offered to be a part of a new distillery back in Kentucky.
“Of course our roots are back in Kentucky, and it would give Donna and me a chance to go back home,” he said. “By 2016, we were producing bourbon at Bardstown Bourbon Co.”
The new structure that sits on 100 acres of land just off the Bluegrass Parkway in Bardstown is described by some as the distillery of the future. With sleek, modern architecture, moss-covered interior walls, large glass panels and lots of visible stainless to produce the bourbon, the open design is meant to highlight the high-end Bottle & Bond kitchen and bar in the distillery.
Bardstown Bourbon is unique in that it provides other craft distillers a place to custom make their own bourbon using this 37,000-square-foot facility’s equipment and expertise.
The barrels are filled and moved to the rick house where nature does its thing in the aging process.
Several months ago, the Nallys invited my wife and me, along with other friends from Bardstown, to have dinner at the Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. Following dinner, Nally ordered up a taste of the distillery’s finest to cap off a wonderful meal.
As the six of us sat around the table, each glass, probably a 10-ounce one, with perhaps three ounces of bourbon, was served. Watching Nally pick up his glass at the head of the table, I assumed he was going to shoot it. That’s a sophisticated way of saying chug it.
I immediately picked up my glass and, yes, shot it. I was the only one who did. Nally picked up his glass in preparation of telling us the proper way to appreciate a fine bourbon. I was embarrassed and certainly wasn’t going to ask for another. I shot mine and was out of bullets.
He then told us all that not everyone knows how to experience the taste of a good bourbon.
“Smell it first,” he said, looking at me with a grin. “Some people think you need to shoot it. It takes time to educate some people.”
He made his point.
As master distiller, he is ultimately responsible for the quality of the bourbon he produces, and in order to maximize this taste at home, he keeps his bourbon in the freezer.
“I’m not the first,” he said. “It chills it and you don’t have to use ice that waters it down. You still get to drink it neat (without ice) to really appreciate what goes into the end result of the process.”
Admittedly, I’m no connoisseur of bourbon or any other adult drink for that matter. Nevertheless, I have a collection of unopened bourbons that includes a bottle of Pappy’s. Some in my lighted case have Nally’s signature. But one of my prize bottles is one he gave me last summer. While perhaps the least expensive, the bottle of Wyoming Whiskey he produced sits in a prominent spot, because he is considered one of the all-time great master distillers in history.
In 2007, at the Bardstown Bourbon Festival, the Nallys were inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame, being the only living couple to receive such recognition.
Today, in the world we currently live in, Bardstown Bourbon Co. is conducting virtual tours in order to keep one of Kentucky’s premier products out there. Nally has been a part of it for 48 years and said 100 million people have tasted a product he has made.
The process has been around from the beginning of time in one form or another ... grinding grain, turning starch into sugar and fermenting.
There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going!
– Gary West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached by emailing westgaryp firstname.lastname@example.org.