Eight years after helping found Kentucky Peerless Distilling, its COO, Cordell Lawrence, and its master distiller, Caleb Kilburn, are leaving the Louisville-based distillery to create their own, Eastern Light Distilling. According to a news release, ELD will be a contract distiller “supporting craft distiller like never before and making our bourbon heritage accessible to more Kentuckians.”
“Eastern Light is the culmination of a lifelong dream to see our state’s signature bourbon industry in my home of Eastern Kentucky,” Caleb Kilburn, master distiller at EDL, said in the release. Kilburn got his first and only job in distilling at Peerless before being named its master distiller two years ago. Along with owner Corky Taylor, he’s become one of the brand’s most recognizable faces. “This is especially important to me because it creates opportunity right here in our own community. It means the next kid from Eastern Kentucky with a dream of becoming a master distiller won’t have to leave home to find their start.”
According to his LinkedIn page, Lawrence is a spirits marketing veteran who’s worked on notable brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Laphroaig and Courvoisier.
“This is about far more than a single spirit brand. It’s about helping build Kentucky’s craft bourbon industry through a customized approach working hand in hand with craft distillers,” Cordell Lawrence, CEO of Eastern Light Distilling, said in the release. “We’re grateful to Governor Beshear, local officials in Morehead and Rowan County, and to everyone else who has helped us realize this dream of creating a unique and innovative concept to advance Kentucky’s time-honored bourbon industry and help new entrants access the thriving spirits marketplace.”
According to one news report, the distillery will produce up to 90,000 barrels a year. (For those doing the math at home, that’s around 3.5 million proof gallons a year, which is a lot of whiskey. And for fun comparisons, Green River’s output is about the same, Bardstown Bourbon Co. will make about 125,000 a year when its new stills start later this year, Heaven Hill bangs out 450,000 barrels a year, and when both stills are fully operational later this year, Buffalo Trace will produce 900,000 a year.)
Interestingly, the news comes roughly a year after Jane Bowie and Denny Potter (master of maturate and master distiller, respectively) left Maker’s Mark Distillery to start one of their own. Named J&D Distilling, it is located in Springfield, Ky., and is expected to be operational by 2024. After many years at Brown-Forman, Marianne Eaves left to become master distiller at then-start-up Castle & Key Distillery. She now leads her own consultancy. And after five years as master taster at Old Forester—and arguably the personality that reinvigorated that historic whiskey—Jackie Zykan left also to start her own consultancy.
Whether this signals a wave of established industry pros striking out on their own remains to be seen. What it certainly implies is there’s loads of investors eager to buy in to the whiskey business and attract the talent to do it for them.
Few of these stories of departure have happy endings, but thankfully, this one does. Peerless’s Taylor, who in addition to being the ever-genial host at his distillery, is a hardcore businessman who loves to compete. Despite that, in the classy gesture below, he wished success for two of his most important Peerless teammates.
“Caleb and Cordell have poured their hearts into Kentucky Peerless, and I am grateful for all they have done for our family and our brand,” said Corky Taylor, CEO of Kentucky Peerless. “We are thankful for their service and admire their entrepreneurial spirit. They should be proud of what we achieved together, and I am excited that they are claiming this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elevate Kentucky's craft distilling industry."