OWENSBORO, Ky.—Roughly six years after Terressentia Corp. began making respectable whiskey at the O.Z. Tyler Distillery here, the properly renamed Green River Distilling Co. staged a blowout release party for its namesake 5-year-old bourbon. On the very location where J.W. McCulloch made whiskey of the same name in 1885, a group of 100 or so tasted the future of this revived distillery and deemed it delicious.
The designation of DSP-10 is histori-cool on its own, but Green River also is the only Kentucky distillery shuttered by Prohibition—and resurrected in the same spot. Many of Green River’s buildings pre-date the ignoble experiment, including the still house and several three-story clay-tile rickhouses. Yet, despite its dotage, this isn’t an idle site.
It’s a real working distillery with a 54-inch wide, four-stories-tall copper column still cranking out 90,000 barrels annually. It’s also operating-room clean, despite being in near ruins when Charleston, S.C.-based Terressentia bought it in 2016. Modernized where necessary and sensible, there’s still no escaping the history of this place.
CEO Simon Burch said the lion’s share of Green River’s production is for contract clients (and logically, a clean production plant is enticing to outside customers). As proven by Bardstown Bourbon Co. and Wilderness Trail Distillery, the business of making whiskey for others is smart. It replenishes early investments quickly while providing revenue to help the house build its own inventory and, if all goes well, wean itself off contract distilling.
Back to Green River’s bourbon: Having tasted it two days prior at a media event in Louisville, I knew it was delicious. Its mashbill of 70 percent corn, 21 percent rye and 9 percent malted barley delivers rich aromas, sturdy mouthfeel and surprising complexity for a 90-proof offering. Master distiller Jacob Call expects cask-strength releases to roll out by the 7-year mark, when the whiskey is more mature and structured.
And speaking of Call, he’s no newcomer to the trade. The Kentucky native is an eighth-generation distiller and direct descendant of Samuel Call, who made whiskey in the late 1700s. Jacob Call’s grandfather and father spent decades as distillers at Beam. (In semi-retirement, Jacob’s father, Ron Call, is now making rum at Papa’s Pilar.) Prior to signing on with Terressentia, Call worked for Florida Distillers. With that firm, he’s led the creation of 20-plus whiskeys for Green River contract clients.
THIS IS ALSO ABOUT OWENSBORO
Much of what makes Green River Distilling Co. visit worthy is its location in Owensboro. Before Prohibition (whiskey writers should shorten this to “B.P.”), Owensboro was home to 20 distilleries, a significant number for what then was a much smaller town than its current population of 60,000. Save for Glenmore Distillery, all were lost to Prohibition.
Over the past decade, Owensboro’s downtown was remade for tourism. Between the innovative Smothers Park lining the riverfront, a new convention center, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, new hotels and multiple new restaurants and bars, it’s one of Kentucky’s best small city attraction packages.
Drawing visitors here, however, is a little tricky since few travelers go through Owensboro en route anywhere else; you must leave the interstate (I-64 to the north, 1-69/Western Kentucky Parkway to the south) to get here. But with lots of good stuff to do in Owensboro, it’s well worth the detour, especially with Green River added to its growing list of experiences.
Back to the release party: Present that night were many Owensboro business owners, people acutely aware that bourbon is booming. They know visitors love historic sites and the imaginary time travel they provide. Most importantly, they know the draw of whiskey fans to Green River means more visitors to their hotels, restaurants and affiliated businesses. They’re fully aware that Terressentia’s big bet on bourbon could pay off handsomely for everyone.
Interestingly, that message is essentially implied on the side of distillery rickhouse in bold, hand-painted letters: “Green River. The Whiskey Without Regrets.” It’s a slight diversion from the brand’s original tagline—"The Whiskey Without Headaches”—but it’s still meaningful to locals who wondered for years if O.Z. Tyler would ever make its own good whiskey.
The distillery has sourced and bottled for others (think Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon) and made other’s whiskey from scratch. Bradshaw Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NFL legend Terry Bradshaw’s 2-and-a-half-year-old product, is the best-known of them. (My own take: It’s long on youth, laden with butterscotch and bereft of complexity. And yet it sells.)
Another brand made there, Wheel Horse Bourbon, shares its 70-21-9 mashbill with Green River Bourbon. Aged to about 3 years, it’s bottled in Rhode Island at 101 proof and is a simple, easy drinker. Tasted side by side with Green River, the resemblances are easily spotted. But so is its youth and to drinkers craving some age, it’s just not great.
When the distillery was renamed Green River in 2020, and the company began talking up a forthcoming bourbon by the same name, Call got to say publicly what he’d been doing privately since 2016: distilling whiskey we’d all one day appreciate. At that evening’s event, many in the crowd tasted the bourbon for the first time, and they liked it. Dozens got seconds: some as neat pours, others in cocktails. The few writers in attendance already knew it was good, so it was fun watching others discovering what we already understood—that finally, this distillery was producing a whiskey its hometown wouldn’t regret.