On Saturday, I had my first look at Kentucky's newest whiskey distillery, Charles Medley Distillers Kentucky, conveniently abbreviated for us as CMDK. I posted this from there, on Saturday night.
The distillery is in Owensboro, Kentucky, an Ohio River town in Daviess County (pronounced "Davis") in Western Kentucky, about 40 miles upriver from Evansville, Indiana, and about 120 miles downriver from Louisville.
CMDK is a new name, but it refers to the family that owned the place from 1940 to 1559, and operated it until it fell silent in 1991. Charles was the last Medley there, as an employee. He bought the plant after it closed, hoping to reopen it, but never could.
In 2007, he sold it to Angostura, the company you may know for their Angostura bitters. They are, in fact, a big distiller of rum, vodka and other spirits, based in Trinidad and Tobago. In recent years they have been buying distilleries all over the world, including in Scotland and France.
Daviess County produced its last bourbon in 1991, when this plant closed, but it once was one of the big distilling centers in Kentucky, on both sides of Prohibition. The first distillery on this site, near the river just west of downtown, was built in 1885. There were other distilleries on two of the adjacent lots.
As with the Ripy family in Anderson County and the Beam family in Nelson, most distillery operations in Daviess had a Medley in them somewhere. Most old timers in Owensboro continue to call this place Medley Brothers, the name it bore from 1940 to 1988. It was run by the five Medley brothers. Charles is the son of Wathen Medley, whose first name is actually the surname of another prominent Kentucky whiskey family from Louisville, the Wathens, that merged with the Medleys through marriage.
During Prohibition, the Wathens operated the largest consolidation warehouse, in Louisville. It was called American Medicinal Spirits (AMS). After Prohibition, AMS was the core of what became National Distillers. The Wathen/Medley clan is one of the first families of bourbon.
Charles, the plant's last Master Distiller, was at Saturday's event and is consulting with the new operation.
Most of the buildings, including the warehouses, are red brick, but they have two steel clad warehouses, which are being at least partially reclad. The warehouses need a lot of repair work inside too. Warehouses are important because they are where the barrels of whiskey age. To rebuild the interiors, they are getting ricks from the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery Angostura also owns.
The first CMDK new make whiskey may be entered into barrels in 2009, but I wouldn't bet on it. Whenever it happens, it will be several years after that before it is fully aged and ready for sale, so don't expect to see any whiskey from this distillery on the market before 2014.
Derek Schneider, the plant manager, says they're trying to achieve a good balance of tradition and modernity, although I don't think he used the word "modernity." About half of what they need to get the distilling part going is there, the rest will be new. They need new milling and grain handling, many new fermenters (Charles sold all of the cypress ones to Maker's Mark years ago), new boilers and a new beer well. The old mash cookers are still good, as are the beer still and doubler. They need all new modern process controls.
They're investing about $25 MM in the restoration.
It would appear that they are planning to get tourism going about the same time they get distilling going. They aren't going to wait until they have some product to sell.
The refurbished distillery as currently envisioned will have a capacity of 2,000,000 proof gallons per year.
Schneider is an interesting guy. He is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserves. He spent 10 years on active duty as an Armor/Cavalry Officer and has been 12 years in the reserves as a Civil Affairs officer. He has been to 27 countries including 4 tours in the Middle East (Desert Storm and Iraq). He managed 75 reconstruction projects in Iraq including rebuilding 32 schools, 8 water treatment plants, 2 bridges over the Tigris River and numerous other public buildings. He was also a UN Peacekeeper. He currently teaches at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Knox. He plans to retire from the Army this year to devote full time to making whiskey.
The distillery has a web site, here.