Initially established in 1885 by J.W. McCulloch, Green River Distilling Co. received the 10th distilling license ever distributed in Kentucky, well ahead of heavy hitters like Stitzel-Weller, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, and Buffalo Trace.
The “Whiskey Without a Headache” operation thrived back in the day, even earning a grand prize at the Liege Exposition in Belgium in 1908, until it was dealt the damaging one-two punch of a 1918 fire quickly followed by Prohibition. The Medley family purchased the property and managed to rebuild, running the distillery for the next 70 years until it eventually fell into decay and disrepair.
Extensive renovation brought the property back to life with production restarting in 2016. The story came full circle in 2020 when the current owners opted to return the distillery to its roots by reclaiming it once again as Green River. The westernmost stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail now opens its doors to the public for tours and tastings. After an hour-long guided walk through the facility, we sat down for samples of several Green River products.
The flagship 90-proof Green River bourbon is now available in most of Kentucky (as well as Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri and some parts of Florida) after five years of aging. Packaged in a unique horseshoe-shaped bottle, the very reasonably priced $38 whiskey advertises a mash bill of 70 percent corn, 21 percent wheat and 9 percent malted barley. Cinnamon and dried fruit come through on the nose and carry into the first sip, redolent of toasty cinnamon raisin bread and fragrant oatmeal cookie. A quick splash of water introduces hints of honey and an almost floral note.
Referencing the licensing number, not the age, the Kentucky 10 makes a big impression for a whiskey so young, aged just 2.5 years. Created with the same mash bill as the Green River but subbing in rye for the wheat, this one comes in hot with flavors of pecan and baking spices, easing into sweet apple pie with a few drops of water added. A little harder to find, for now you’ll likely only find Kentucky 10 in Kentucky, Florida, and Minnesota with a price tag of $26.
Yellow Banks, named for Owensboro’s earliest settlement, rounds out the tasting trio. The three-year, 92-proof whiskey presents with corn and butterscotch, an almost creamy mouthfeel and a peppery finish, turning smoky and oaky with water.
The onsite shop offers bottles, of course, plus bags of oak barrel char for use in home smokers (or as great aromatherapy).