Friday, August 26, 2016

Owensboro's New/Old O. Z. Tyler Distillery Fills Its First Barrels

After 24 years, whiskey is being made in Owensboro again. Although the official Grand Opening of the O. Z. Tyler Distillery is next Thursday, September 1, the first barrels are being filled today.

O. Z. Tyler is a revival of the old Medley Distillery, home of Ezra Brooks and other bourbons, which United Distillers (now Diageo) acquired in 1991 and closed in 1992.

O. Z. Tyler is owned by Terressentia, which is based in North Charleston, South Carolina. The company is best known for its patented TerrePURE process, which uses ultrasonic energy, heat, oxygen, and other factors to improve the quality and taste of distilled spirits products. The company has built a successful business making bottom shelf whiskeys a little more palatable, successful enough that the company needed a more reliable source of whiskey, hence O. Z. Tyler (named after one of the inventors of the process).

Amidst the current building boom in whiskey distilleries, O. Z. Tyler is unique for a couple of reasons. Both Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve and the former Old Taylor Distillery, now known as Castle and Key, are revived distilleries that were silent much longer and in much worse shape when their restoration began. Charles Medley, the Owensboro distillery's last master distiller, bought it from United. Although he was never able to reopen it, Medley managed to keep the plant in good repair. A decade ago, he sold it to the Trinidadian company that makes Angostura Bitters, which began the restoration until it was rocked by the world financial crisis in 2009.

Charles Medley, who celebrates his 75th birthday on September 1, appears in this video on behalf of the new owners.

The centerpiece of any distillery is its beer still. The existing one at Medley was in good shape, but Terressentia President Earl Hewlette wanted to go bigger, so he had Vendome make him a new 54" diameter column. It's not the biggest still in Bourbondom, Buffalo Trace has an 84" monster, but it's the biggest among the newcomers. The fermenters and boiler are also new but much of the other equipment was retained.

O. Z. Tyler is run by Jacob Call, whose family has deep roots in Kentucky's whiskey-making culture.

Although it begins a new era today, the distillery had a long association with the Medley family. Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Central Kentucky early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.

Medley sons followed their fathers throughout the 19th century until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it  'Davis' despite the spelling.) That distillery was adjacent to the current one. George’s son, Thomas, joined and then succeeded his father in that venture.

Kentucky is a small state and distilling is a very collegial business. Then as now, all of Kentucky’s main distillers were acquainted with one another. Like the Medleys, the Wathens had been early settlers in Washington County, part of a community of Catholics who all came west together from Maryland. By the close of the 19th century, the three Wathen brothers; John Bernard, Nick, and Nace, were  among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Old Grand-Dad was one of their brands.

Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They had six sons who all worked in the family business. One of them was named Wathen Medley, to signify the blending of two long Kentucky distilling traditions. Charles Medley is his son.

The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. Fire destroyed most of Green River in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.

The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general area, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling. Tom Medley bought it and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940, at age 64. Wathen sold it to Fleischmann’s and bought the adjacent Green River place, which he renamed the Medley Brothers Distillery. Wathen sold the company in 1959 but the new owners kept the name. Wathen, Charles and Wathen's brother John stayed. Two other brothers, Tom Jr. and Ben, went off to start another distillery nearby, called Old Stanley.

In the late 1980s, in quick succession, Medley bought Fleischmann's, Glenmore bought Medley, and what became Diageo bought Glenmore.

Terressentia owns none of the old Medley brands and none of the brands it does own are household names. The company plans to make traditional bourbon and rye, some of which it will subject to its TerrePURE process. It will compete in the bulk whiskey market with MGP, and probably develop its own brands eventually. It is not open to the public right now, but a visitors center and participation in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are in the cards.

O. Z. Tyler may be the only working distillery in Owensboro but it is not the only producer. On the site of the old Glenmore Distillery, on the east side of town, Sazerac has several aging warehouses and a large bottling and distribution facility.


Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Since I'm all for more, and better, bourbon, I'm rooting for OZ to make it. But I can't say I have great expectations, based on the Terressentia product I've tried.

Hopefully their goal is something higher than taking undrinkable whiskey, and turning it into something somewhat palatable (then bottling it with vaguely interesting labels, and selling it at $20+ per 750ml).

We can only hope they skip the TerePure process on some of their better whiskeys, and sell them at a reasonable price---the way their big competitors do.

mozilla said...

If Charles Medley has anything to do with the recipe or making the bourbon that comes out of this plant....I guarantee it will be great tasting.
I have had the pleasure of drinking many old medley bourbons...and they all have been so excellent.
Charles made whiskey with a very old fashioned process. His whiskies were fat with flavor and rich with heart.

Hopefully, the new owners will listen to his guidance and expertise.

Anonymous said...

I watch terressentia with skeptical optimism. I think that if used in the right situations it can enhance an already good product, such as Vodka, Gin, and other white spirits which are made in very tall column stills that remove most of the harsh components of spirits.

I draw the line at products that aim to substitute, rather than enhance.

For instance, I tried some "rapid aged" rums this Summer and was amused but not really impressed. Yes, it was fruity, but it still had the rawness of a young spirit. There are numerous other factors to delve into one of them likely being the Angel's share which is responsible for removing a fair bit of that headiness.

Not that I'm a luddite. Nature is chemistry and chemistry can be nature, but in terms of anyone who tells me about quick-aging solutions -- I still won't believe it until I actually taste it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I will say this for Terressentia. Their claims are modest and their product is very successful.

Owensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau said...

O.Z. Tyler is continuing to have tremendous success as we are seeing visitors search for an authentic experience and are curious about Kentucky bourbon, said Mark Calitri, president, Visit Owensboro.

Owensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau said...

Exploring the economic impact of bourbon to Kentucky | Downtown revitalization draws new visitors, says Mark A. Calitri, Visit Owensboro.
Downtown Owensboro is coming alive with opportunities says Mark A. Calitri, Visit Owensboro. The new convention hotel is going to be a crucial piece of the puzzle for Visit Owensboro to attract larger, more profitable groups. New restaurants are being planned that will add to the value of booking major conventions. The center attraction is the O.Z. Tyler Bourbon Distillery. Our guests will be amazed!

Owensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau said...

Mark Calitri says, O.Z. Tyler is a true icon for Owensboro. This community continues to evolve and grow while keeping based in its culture. That’s a feat few communities can claim.