Lisa Wicker is undoubtedly one of the most talented distillers in the spirits industry thanks to two decades of creating a wide variety of products and a wide variety of distilleries and wineries. Today Garrard County Distilling Company, one of the largest new distilleries in Kentucky, is announcing award-winning craft spirits producer Lisa Wicker as its first master distiller.
“When I saw the distillery, I knew I had an opportunity to still get dirty here,” Wicker says. “You know my favourite work uniform is blue jeans and steel-toed boots. The fact that I can be everywhere and not have to run everything is a remarkable luxury. Ray Franklin has assembled a crazy-remarkable team. We have so much depth, so much knowledge. It’s a wonderful thing because I am learning on the job every day. You know, I think one of my strengths is knowing my weaknesses, and I knew I certainly have some holes in my education. I have the team here to help me connect the dots. And I’m trying to provide the same thing for them, as a general overview of the whole industry and where we fit in and what our culture is going to be.”
Wicker began her beverage alcohol career as a winemaker and has worked at Limestone Branch Distillery, Huber’s Starlight Distillery, Widow Jane Distillery, and more. (Read more about Lisa Wicker’s background on americanwhiskeymag.com).
Garrard County is the birthplace of Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding Prohibitionist known for busting up saloons and campaigning nationwide for the end of legal beverage alcohol sales.
“There’s so much passion about the history of this place,” Wicker explains. “There’s so much passion about the history of Garrard County and the Garrard County distilling history that’s, because of our presence, starting to get some attention. We’re finding things out from the historical society and from the library and other types of research. We have a local gentleman here that’s in charge of community relations, so, of course, he either knows the stories or is learning the stories of what the traditions are here.”
While part of Garrard County’s history is Carrie Nation, there was a rich farm-distilling history there that was lost to Prohibition. Notably, Wicker says, there was single malt whisky being made there before Prohibition.
“The site is beautiful, it’s 210 acres,” she says. “The distillery sits on top of the hill. One rickhouse is up, the other ones will be going up soon. They were distilling a little bit of everything historically in Garrard County, a little bit of brandy. I hope I’m not giving up the big secret here, but there was single malt being produced in Garrard County in the late 1800s, which is, you know, a little bit mind-blowing. It was mostly whiskies.”
The main brand currently at Garrard County Distilling is All Nations Whiskey, a play on a famous saloon sign found across the country in the 1930s, “All Nations Welcome Except Carrie,” which conveyed disapproval of Carrie Nation’s insistence on banning alcohol as well as celebrating Prohibition’s repeal. As a nod to this local heritage, a section of Carrie Nation’s home is being dismantled and reconstructed on the distillery grounds, and, according to Wicker, there’s a definite presence there, confirmed by construction workers and employees onsite.
Wicker has spent time at many distilleries that don’t necessarily appear on her resume. Her strongest suits are in grain selection, mashing, and fermentation, and she’s excited to be able to go more in-depth on each of these areas and more thanks to the team at Garrard County Distilling.
“I feel like I hold an umbrella over everything from grain selection to yeast selection to fermentation,” Wicker explains. “Do I need to go more in-depth on all of those things? You know, that’s one of my opportunities I have here. My QA team is top-notch. Our distilling team is, I mean, everybody came with a pedigree. So I am freed up to help influence all of those things because these guys know this stuff inside and out. But at the same time, I’m coming and interjecting the art part. And that part for them, too, is really exciting. A couple of them are from craft distilleries and others have been at places like Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and MGP.”
Currently, Garrard County Distilling is leaning heavily into R&D and trying to dial in the process, Wicker says.
“They’ve been dialled into certain numbers but we’re actually making the cuts on the column to say, okay, let’s dial it in here, let’s dial it in there,” says Wicker. “I did tell them, you have to understand, I’m going to throw some questions at you that are not questions that you’re going to be used to getting, because I’m a very intuitive distiller, whether it’s cooking and adjusting the pot when you’re cooking, or whether you’re adjusting a fermentation for whatever reason, whether it’s to increase yield or increased flavour or all of those things, they already know the numbers. They know how to squeeze every drop out. So now the wonderful thing with that is I get to pull backward for them and say, OK, I mean, the texture on what we’re making right now is ridiculous. I’ve never tasted new make with the texture. One of our goals is not to lose that texture as we continue to dial in and decide what’s happening and what the most efficient way of processes are, it’s like, okay, we’re going to guard this because this is something we’ve got going for us.”
More than anything, Wicker is excited that she gets to go back to getting her hands dirty.
“I get to get back to my roots,” she says. “You know, one thing I’ve learned for better or worse in this industry is just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to do that. The craziest things happen. You keep your head down, you work hard. It’s an honour and not something I take lightly. And I certainly want to share it with the entire team.”
Learn more about Garrard County Distilling at the Staghorn website.
Photos supplied by Staghorn.