Directly across the street from the opulent- and reportedly haunted- historic French Lick Springs Hotel, you’ll find Spirits of French Lick distillery, the unexpected offspring of French Lick Winery.
A true family affair, owners John and Kim Doty started the winery in 1995, assisted by their sons Aaron and Nick, and Nick’s wife, Laurelin. Fueled by Indiana’s dramatic viticultural growth plus changes in liquor laws, they launched the distillery operations in 2016. To ensure continuation of their commitment to excellence, they hired local farmer and acclaimed distiller Alan Reed Bishop.
Much like the distillery, Bishop boasts a unique history. He cites growing up in a family of tobacco farmers and moonshiners as his driving force.
“I either had great parents, or really questionable parents,” he laughs. “They knew I was going to get into this stuff, and they were ok with me doing it at home where they could keep an eye on me. My dad and my grandpa helped me build a little 10-gallon still and gave me two rules — don’t blow your ass up in the backyard and bring me something when it’s worth drinking.” He was only fifteen years old.
By his mid-20s, Bishop had shifted his focus to organic agriculture, exploring the intersections of farming and distilling by experimenting with different grain varieties. After a two-year stint with Copper and Kings in Louisville, he returned to his Hoosier stomping grounds to help launch the spirits operation.
Boasting the largest pot-still capacity in Indiana, Spirits of French Lick produces more than just bourbon and whiskey. A rarity for midwest distilleries, they also make botanicals such as aquavit, absinthe, and eau de vie.
“Absinthe is something I’m very passionate about,” he explains. “Indiana actually has a long absinthe tradition in Switzerland County (where Swiss immigrants started the first commercial wine region in the early 1800s). I love the flavor and texture and all the things that are still yet to be done with it.”
Keeping things hyper-local, Bishop sources most of his grain from within a six-county radius of the distillery.
“We buy all of our #2 commodity dent corn from Orange and Dubois County, and we grow about 30 acres of the Amanda Palmer variety corn I bred in Martin County,” he says. “Some things we can’t get locally. We get oats out of Kentucky, and our buckwheat and kasha, we get out of Georgia. And we collect many of our alternative yeast strains ourselves right here in southern Indiana.”
A self-described armchair historian, Bishop and his team get a kick out of naming products after unsung and sometimes historically controversial personalities like the original West Baden Springs Hotel owner Lee Sinclair and Mattie Gladden, Sinclair’s former housekeeper-turned-bordello madam and rumored mistress of P.T. Barnum.
“If you can find a product that matches someone’s life story and put a blurb on the back of the bottle about it, it’s almost like necromancy,” Bishop says. “You bring them back to life.”
Despite their deep inventory of quality spirits, it’s the four-grain Lee Sinclair straight bourbon and William Dalton Bottled-in-Bond wheated bourbon with the greatest following, bolstered by favorable reviews from notable experts like internationally renowned author and spirits critic Fred Minnick.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Bishop aims to keep pushing the boundaries of distilling to create innovative new tastes.
“We’re always playing around with flavor profiles,” he says. “We just released an apple brandy we finished in an Islay Scotch barrel; it’s basically a smoked apple brandy. We’ve finished rye in absinthe barrels, Maddie Gladden in brandy barrels, and Lee Sinclair in stout and wine barrels.”
As Bishop looks ahead to the possible expansion of the distillery and its distribution reach, he’s adamant about maintaining a hands-on, traditional non-chill-filtered, pot-still process.
He is resolute. “We won’t be dropping in a column still as long as I’m here!”
He’s clearly on to something, proven by Spirits of French Lick’s success. If you’re traveling nearby, you owe it to yourself to visit the tasting room and sample their spirits and wines. Afterward, if you’re lucky, you may even meet some of the spirits roaming the French Lick Hotel.