Her experience in beverage alcohol spans more than 20 years. Most recently she was the master distiller at Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn, during which time she distilled both in New York and in Kentucky at Castle & Key and was intricately involved in the farming input to that business. We caught up with her at Town Branch Distillery and Lexington Brewing and Distilling in Lexington, Kentucky, to learn how her new position is going so far. (Read more about Lisa Wicker’s background on americanwhiskeymag.com).
Maggie Kimberl (MK): What did you do on the first day of your new job?
Lisa Wicker (LW): I went on tour! Alltech headquarters is a huge facility, and [Alltech CEO] Mark Lyons spent the day with me, just getting me oriented to everything from headquarters to the buildings here, and giving me his version of the history lesson for Lyons Brewing and Distilling and Alltech.
MK: And what's your day-to-day going to be like in this new role?
LW: Just like my other day-to-days and all my other roles – who knows?
MK: That's the best kind of job, isn't it?
LW: You plan and you put meetings on your calendar, and then the day takes stuff wherever it needs to go. I've been trying to stop in at the brewery and in the distillery every morning. I haven't always been able to make that happen recently, because we've had so many early-morning meetings, but that's my goal – to be able to be onsite and start the day where I'm the most comfortable, which is in the distillery.
MK: How does it feel to be back in Kentucky full-time?
LW: Oh my gosh, I can't even begin to describe it. I am so grateful to be home, I'm so happy about the project in Brooklyn, and being able to come back and have an interesting job is, it’s a gift.
MK: Are there any projects you're working on that you are particularly excited about?
LW: We're doing some restructuring, trying to really work for that team approach. In Brooklyn I cross-trained everybody. I need everyone to understand everyone else's jobs, not just so they can step in if needed, but also because it just makes a better work environment when everyone understands what the other person is doing. It's fun. When the stress is high, it's nice to have people to laugh with.
MK: I know you're a proponent of pedigreed grains, particularly corn. Any plans to incorporate pedigreed grains into the rotation here?
LW: Yes! I don't know how much time I'm allowed to share yet, but there have been some comical exchanges. That's what Alltech does, it's an agriculture business, right? So I've had a couple of phone calls from Crop Science or in-person meetings just like, what are we doing? Red corn, seriously?
MK: What about ryes and barleys?
LW: Any pedigreed grains would be in the future. It's trying to take something that they're used to doing on a very large scale and bringing it down to a smaller scale – things like storage, those sorts of things. We have to work backwards from our goal.
MK: How does the Lexington bourbon scene compare to the Bardstown bourbon scene, and also the Brooklyn bourbon scene?
LW: I am not as familiar with the Lexington bourbon scene as I should be. I've had lots of amazingly wonderful invitations extended to me, and because of the holidays and some interruptions, I haven't been able to accept all those invitations, so I can't give you an accurate read on Lexington yet. It has just exploded in Bardstown, even from three to four years ago, where you think the growth is pretty much getting to where it can be. If a tourist is in town, it certainly helps the economy, and it certainly helps promote bourbon, and people seem to be happy to be there. The amazing thing is that people return to the Bourbon Trail. They come and realize how big it is, and then they want to come back, so you end up with people who are coming to Bardstown on a regular basis now.
MK: How does that compare to Brooklyn?
LW: In Brooklyn, our customers usually knew our product. In New York people were very destination based, it wasn't like they were going to do the Bourbon Trail there and go from distillery to distillery. It was always nice to encourage them to go on to the neighbours. We had a lot of visitors from out of state when I was a year in. We had a group of women from Kentucky, and they said that they were visiting New York because they'd seen Widow Jane barrels laid down at Castle & Key.
MK: I love how that kind of all comes full circle! What do you think Lexington is doing really well in regard to Bourbon tourism?
LW: I feel like I know Bardstown really well, but I don't know Lexington well yet. There's so much to offer for even non-bourbon people here. I'm impressed with the arts community and how many performances are provided, and obviously the sports are here. It's just a very enthusiastic community.
MK: You approach many techniques from a wine-making perspective. Can you tell readers how that differs from a more traditional distillation technique, and in what ways it's the same?
LW: Traditional whisky making techniques are all over the map. When we start to think about the big guys, we think about chemical engineering backgrounds. I think coming from a wine-making background. It's more, for lack of a better term, more of a cooking or culinary approach to building the product. My protocols for mashing are a lot colder and longer. We have not changed anything over here. As we start to experiment with our corn, after all these years, I’m finally getting a place where I'm feeling really comfortable about how those are mashed and distilled differently. As far as the similarities between wine making and whiskey making, there are some people who don't believe that there's terroir in whiskey and I'm thinking, how can there not be? In working at Mount Vernon [at George Washington’s Distillery], people will taste the distillate there and they'll say, oh, you use some smoke grains in this? No, it’s not the grains, it's because that white distillate is a sponge and it's soaking up all that wood smoke, and it's just a product of its environment.
MK: Are you going to be in Kentucky full-time, or are you going to be working at all the Alltech facilities?
LW: I'll be working at all of them, primarily spending the bulk of my time here in Lexington. I'm heading to Ireland soon. I've been down to Pikeville, Kentucky, only once, but I'm planning a trip to go and spend several days with the team there, so I can get a good read on the community and on the employees and the facility to see how we can better utilise all of those beautiful facilities.
MK: What else do you want people to know?
LW: The team here is really interesting! Not unlike Widow Jane, everybody's got their own story about how they ended up here. There are a lot of people who started with Alltech years and years ago but moved over to beverage in the last few years, and so I love hearing all the history here and the history of the science here. It's a wonderful place.