Crystal Brady was born and raised in Loretto, just a stone’s throw away from Maker’s Mark Distillery. Like many in the area, she’s had friends and relatives who were employed at the distillery over the years, and she knew it as a good place to work. That reputation was confirmed when she took a position in the bottling and labeling department, where she has worked for the past 12 years. Her son, Blake Hanlon, joined her there a little over five years ago, following a stint in automotive manufacturing.
“She always talked about what a great place it is to work, and she influenced me to get a job here,” Hanlon says. “The majority of people here are local, and we all take a lot of pride in our work and in the brand. I feel like a valued part of the team.”
“We wear the red with pride,” Brady adds, referring to Maker’s Mark’s signature color. “It’s always been family oriented and it continues to be that way, even as we’re growing.”
The distillery’s growth, much like the entire distilling industry in Kentucky over the past decade, has been remarkable. Brady says Maker’s Mark’s production volume and its employee count have both grown substantially in the time she’s been with the distillery, as has the number of brands it produces. The bourbon boom, it seems, shows no signs of slowing.
Strength in numbers
The numbers paint a clear picture: There are now more than 95 distillery locations across the state—five times as many as in 2009, when the Kentucky Distillers’ Association first published its industry study. These distilleries also are more geographically dispersed, with at least one in 40 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. Employment in the distilling industry has surged from around 9,800 to over 22,550 during this period, accompanied by an annual payroll exceeding $1.23 billion, according to the KDA.
Evidence of this growth can be seen throughout the state—a proliferation of brown road signs point the way to new distilleries, new rickhouses dot the landscape and an influx of tour buses and vehicles with out-of-state license plates can be seen outside every distillery as record numbers of visitors explore the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The transformative impact of the distilling industry on local communities and the opportunities it offers residents, however, often unfolds at a slower pace and remains largely unnoticed by outsiders.
For instance, in Augusta, a small northern Kentucky town on the Ohio River, the founders of Augusta Distillery are working to establish a bourbon-driven ecosystem that attracts visitors and rejuvenates the community.
In 2017, Lance and Lalani Bates renovated a historic downtown building into the Beehive Augusta Tavern. The following year, they joined three other partners—including Ryan Edwards and his wife, Jamie, who also opened the Augusta Guest House—in founding the Augusta Distillery. The idea is for guests to come for the bourbon and the history and stay to eat, sleep and enjoy other amenities in the picturesque city. Visitor numbers have steadily risen, especially after the distillery’s Buckner’s 13-year-old single-barrel was named the best overall bourbon at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year.
Currently, the distillery employs eight people, with plans to add around 20 more positions over the next year, Edwards says, including in guest experiences, distillation, bottling, warehousing and accounting.
“First and foremost, our priority is to hire locally—starting with Augusta, followed by Bracken County, then Maysville, and branching out from there,” Edwards says.
Lalani Bates, who has a background in hotel and restaurant management, underscores the growth potential of these jobs, including entry- and mid-level management roles. “For young, college-educated individuals who want to remain in this charming community, possibly near their families, it provides a pathway to a career,” she says.
In the western part of the state, Reed Van Winkle, an Owensboro native, has personally capitalized on advancement opportunities in the distilling industry. He started at Green River Distillery about six years ago, rolling barrels and working in the warehouse. He transitioned into the processing department and currently holds the position of warehousing and fleet manager, overseeing all aspects of aging, packaging and shipping whiskey.
“This career path has certainly provided me with a lot of opportunities for growth and education across all facets of the job,” Van Winkle says.
When Bardstown Bourbon Co. acquired Green River in June 2022 (having itself been acquired by a Chicago-based private equity group a few months earlier), Van Winkle admits there was some uncertainty about the implications of the ownership change. “But that quickly went away,” he says. “A lot of capital investments have been made, which only reinforces your sense of stability in the workplace.”
Jobs in the distilling industry can also provide opportunities for people transitioning or retiring from other careers.
Jacob Whitaker, a fermentation specialist at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, worked in the biotech industry for more than a decade before joining the distillery two years ago in its yeast lab. “In (research and development), funding dictates everything—and once a patent becomes valuable, someone snaps it up and your entire company can vanish,” he says. “This is a much more stable and interesting environment.”
Twenty miles north, in Frankfort, Daryl Casey discovered his ideal post-retirement role as a part-time tour guide at Buffalo Trace Distillery. Casey, 52, joined the distillery in 2021, following a 33-year military career, primarily as a helicopter mechanic and Black Hawk crew chief stationed at Frankfort’s Boone National Guard Center.
Casey says he enjoys drinking bourbon “a little bit,” but finds greater appreciation in the people and the process behind its creation. “The smell; the love of the craft; the history and the story of it—that’s the stuff that I really get into,” he says.
Although Buffalo Trace, owned by the Sazerac Company, is currently in the midst of a multiphase, $1.2 billion expansion—a project slated to triple its capacity—Casey says a feeling of family and of shared pride is pervasive among its ever-expanding staff.
“This is the most award-winning distillery in the world, and it’s right here in my hometown,” he says. “To come here and immerse yourself in this place and appreciate what it represents, not just in terms of bourbon but for the entire community, is truly special.”
Opportunities for veterans
A pronounced connection exists between Kentucky’s military and distillery landscapes. For example, Horse Soldier Bourbon, currently building a $200 million distillery in Somerset, was founded by a group of Green Berets who were the first American troops to enter Afghanistan after the attacks on 9/11. A group of ex-Special Forces soldiers also founded Bardstown Bourbon Co. The founders of Four Branches Bourbon, also based in Bardstown, served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
MB Roland Distillery is yet another example of the military-distillery connection. It’s situated on a former dairy farm in Pembroke, just a few miles from Fort Campbell on the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. Paul and Merry Beth Tomaszewski founded the state’s first “grain-to-glass” craft distillery in 2009 after Paul retired from active duty at the base.
This craft distillery uses locally sourced grains to create a distinctive pot-distilled, pre-Prohibition-style whiskey that its founders believe holds a richer and more unique flavor than the majority of bourbons available today.
“We started with just the two of us and, as we grew the business … it was a matter of [finding] good people that fit that role and training them,” Paul Tomaszewski says. Often, those employees are also veterans. Most of MB Roland’s 20 employees have military experience.
“It’s a very similar mindset and culture,” Tomaszewski says of the hands-on processes involved in distillery work.
For example, MB Roland’s lead distiller and processing manager were explosive ordnance disposal technicians in the Army. “I like to say that we have our own bomb team,” Tomaszewski says.
Vanessa Boykin, MB Roland’s director of operations, was raised in a military family and is also a military spouse. Before joining the distillery three years ago, she worked in a special operations unit at Fort Campbell, charged with administrative needs like contract negotiations and purchase orders. That experience serves her well at the distillery, she says, where she oversees processing and production and ensures that tax filings, licenses and federal reports all remain current.
“Coming from a government contract job, I definitely was very used to that,” she says.
“The distillation part was a whole different learning curve. Sometimes I wake up and don’t know how to dress for work because I never know what to expect. But I love it, and it keeps things interesting.”