Seeing Steve Nally in a suit and tie is unusual. Six-foot-four and broad-shouldered, the master distiller at Bardstown Bourbon Co. (BBC) has as good a frame for fine couture as any 71 year old. It’s just that few in the crowd of 80 gathered (on a recent March evening) at the distillery’s restaurant have ever seen him clad in anything other than jeans and a golf shirt. He wears the suit well, but he doesn’t look at ease in it.
Perhaps being the center of attention spurs a little unease. BBC is throwing a party to celebrate Nally’s 50th year in distilling, and like a conquering hero returning from battle, his progress through the crowd is slowed by handshakes, hugs and some verbal jabs. One longtime friend said to Nally, “I think they’re going to roast you tonight!” Grinning at the idea, Nally said, “If that happens, this could be a long night!”
Doubtless, the stories would be plentiful—as long as others are telling them. Nally loves to talk about his work, but on this night when the focus is him, he’s a man of few words.
“I’m not much of a guy who wants to be in the spotlight, but I’m grateful so many people came out tonight,” Nally said from the mic during dinner. According to him, his wife, Donna Nally, is a better storyteller (she is good), and since she proceeded him at the podium, “there isn’t much to add.”
Yeah, right. Not much to add. At the mic, anyway. Nally’s a storyteller when you get him one on one, which I did over the phone several days after the dinner.
“I started at Maker’s Mark in 1971 growing yeast,” Nally said. Then a fraction of the mega-distillery it would become, everyone on Maker’s Mark’s small crew did many jobs. “If they needed me to go fill barrels, I did it. If they needed me to work in a warehouse, I did it. Sometimes I’d be mowing the grass.”
Nally didn’t come to the distillery angling for a whiskey maker’s job, he needed income and had heard Maker’s Mark was hiring. A 1970s commodities price crash drained all the profits from a livestock and crop farm he and his brother owned and operated. He loved farm work but feared its revenue inconsistency, and his friend, distilling legend, Sam Cecil, hired him.
As Maker’s grew, Nally’s experience grew with it. Mechanically inclined, Nally assembled bottling lines, repaired broken cookers and helped figure out how to double distilling capacity in an already cramped facility. In his seventeenth year there, Maker’s made him head distiller—the industry’s preferred title before it morphed into master distiller.
“That was 1988, and I’d been (head distiller) Arthur Goady’s assistant for two years, so I pretty much kept doing what I was already doing,” he said. “Now, though, I was responsible for all of it.”
"Oh, and master distillers were becoming celebrities since he’d retired, and 'I’d be the guy pushed out to the front of it all. … Deep down I knew I could do it, but I guess I was insecure about being responsible for all of that.'”
Nally thrived in the role, helping the brand grow as Maker’s moved from a regional brand to the national wheated bourbon standard of that day.
Yet just as bourbon was poised to emerge from its 30-year sales slump, Nally retired after 32 years. At age 52, he and Donna (a longtime Maker’s homeplace manager), called it quits.
“I figured I was ready for retirement after that long in one place,” Nally said.
That idea didn’t last long. In 2006, Nally was offered the master distiller’s post at Wyoming Whiskey, but he was reluctant to accept it. Donna had other ideas. He’d be the distiller and she could create a tourism program. Envisioning their new start, she talked about the scenic Rocky Mountains and the challenge of a start-up venture. Steve listened patiently and ultimately agreed to go.
Distilling in Kirby, Wyo., meant overseeing the construction of new whiskey plant, creating its brown goods from scratch and helping establish a new brand. Oh, and master distillers were becoming celebrities since he’d retired, and “I’d be the guy pushed out to the front of it all. … Deep down I knew I could do it, but I guess I was insecure about being responsible for all of that.”
Wyoming’s beauty and friendly people wooed them and working at a small company was refreshing. It didn’t take long before he was happy to be back at work.
Yet, despite the early successes of Wyoming’s whiskeys, tension developed between Nally and its owners, who “wanted to do things differently, things I didn’t agree with,” Nally said. Declining to share specifics, he added, “I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I once was, but I really wasn’t thinking about moving back to Kentucky either.”
At least until Bardstown Bourbon Co. came calling. Having someone as knowledgeable as Nally was central to the BBC investor group’s plan of building and operating what would become America’s most luxurious and modern distillery. Admitting he and Donna were a little homesick for Kentucky, he agreed to return home and start the new venture at age 64.
PRODUCING FOR OTHERS FIRST
For the first 32 years of Nally’s career, he focused on Maker’s one mashbill, and at Wyoming, just a few. At the outset, however, BBC would distill 20 mashbills. Two years later, and as its contract client list grew, a second still was added to manage even more. By 2022, the number of unique mashbills made at BBC had reached 50, almost all of which were recipes for contract clients. In 2023, a new still and fermentation building will open and raise BBC’s output to about 11 million proof gallons—more than 10 times its yield in 2015.
“It is a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun at times,” Nally said. Computers are essential for organizing and scheduling such variety, which requires customers get in line a year before their whiskeys are made. “Each customer is in the system—their specific process, the number of barrels they’ll get, all that is logged in. We’ve done seven or eight different recipes in the same week sometimes. That’s busy.”
2023 is also the year that BBC will release a pair of its own bourbons (one containing 20 percent wheat in the mash, another with 36 percent rye). Asked if the wait for his company’s own whiskey has been frustrating, Nally said no because the contract distilling model has helped fund BBC’s astonishing growth. He said getting to know BBC’s “collaborative distilling partners has made it all really enjoyable. I love meeting clients every day.”
SORRY, YOU'RE IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The evening’s dinner featured no roast, but there was a toast with a special whiskey dubbed Steve’s Legacy, a 100-proof blend of BBC’s two bourbon mashbills at 5 years, and an unspecified dose of 15-year-old Wild Turkey bourbon. For diners itching to splurge, bottles were offered at $400 apiece.
Jim Rutledge, retired master distiller at Four Roses—who isn’t at all retired, just consulting for other distilleries—was there, as was Bill Thomas, owner of the venerable Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. A legendary whiskey collector, Thomas’s task was to supply multiple bottles from a case of 1997 Maker’s Mark, an early release made under Nally’s watch, and pass them around the room.
(Yes, the 1997 Maker’s Mark was noticeably different from what’s coming out of Loretto now, and beautifully so. Asked about the different taste and mouthfeel, Nally said after the event, “Things just went slower back in those days. No computerization to speak of either. Just nosing and tasting. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but the fact that things went slower … I think that had a lot to do with the taste.” Not surprisingly, reporters at the press table showed considerable skill in ensuring those bottles revisited our table.)
At the podium, Donna Nally praised her husband’s bosses for giving him the opportunity to work for such a great distillery. Then, looking at Mark Erwin, BBC’s CEO, she asked that, maybe, the pace of work for could be reduced for her big fella. She didn’t request a re-retirement, but she made clear she’d like to see him tap the brakes.
Steve didn’t mention it during his turn at the mic, but during a later interview, he said, “Well, I guess she’s right that I don’t want to come in and go, go, go every day,” he began. “But as long as I feel good—yeah I probably need to slow down some—I’ll stick with it. I like what I’m doing. It’s still fun.”