Missouri Bourbon With Real Historical Origins
By: Gerald Dlubala
If the name Ben Holladay doesn’t sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. But Holladay is probably one of the least known yet most influential figures in not only Missouri history but in American history as well.
“He really was,” said Jordan Germano, Communcations Manager for McCormick Distilling Company. McCormick packages their family of brands on the same historic Weston, Missouri site where Holladay Bourbon is distilled. “Ben Holladay was born and raised in Kentucky and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, at 17 years of age,” said Germano. “From there, he moved to Weston, Missouri, aptly named because, at the time, it was the westernmost city related to the trade centers. While living in Weston, Holladay was known as a serial entrepreneur and transportation tycoon.”
Holladay’s string of successes led him to be known as the “Stagecoach King,” named for creating the Overland Express stagecoach line that he ultimately sold to Wells Fargo. Holladay also owned steamships, streetcars, a railroad, and even the Pony Express for a brief time. He also became the first postmaster and owned a saloon, silver mine and hotel. Holladay was the largest individual employer in the US in the late 1800s, building an empire that spanned the country. His lasting legacy, however, is that of quality bourbon distiller, beginning when he purchased a parcel of land in Weston, Missouri, that included a natural limestone water supply. Born and raised in Kentucky, Holladay and his brother, Major David, already knew the advantage of having a limestone water source on site. So, in 1856, the Holladay brothers began their whiskey journey by making their first batch and officially launching the Holladay Distillery. The following year, in 1857, that batch sold. Now, 167 years later, the distillery is still located on the original site and is recognized on the National Register Of Historic Places as the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi.
“The distillery never really closed down during all of those years,” said Jordan Germano, “During prohibition, Holladay Distillery was one of the few distillers granted a license to package and distribute their whiskey for strictly medicinal purposes. When prohibition ended, Holladay again began producing bourbon until 1985. At that time, and I know it’s a little hard to believe in our current market, bourbon just wasn’t popular. It wasn’t a trendy drink or something people would seek out, so we stopped making bourbon and concentrated instead on making clear spirits, which were all the rage at that time. In 2015, we refocused and realized we were sitting on a historic property with everything we needed to make great-tasting, quality bourbon, including our own limestone water source and iron-clad historic rickhouses. These things are not common outside of Kentucky, so much so that we are the only Missouri distillery to have them, so we asked ourselves why we weren’t distilling bourbon when everything on the property told us we should.
Everything Necessary For Quality Bourbon Is On Site
Germano told Beverage Master Magazine that the first structure on the property dates back to the early 1900s, the second one is from the 1930s, and the third and most prominent structure, enough to house up to 12,000 barrels, is from the 1950s. After ensuring the structures’ soundness and integrity, two of the three are currently being filled for aging.
“When restarting bourbon production, we knew we had the location, resources, and the ability to wait at least six years to produce a truly authentic and quality product, so that became our goal,” said Germano. “In 2022, we released Ben Holladay Bourbon, using his original recipe with a traditional mash bill of corn, barley and rye. Then, about a year into the process, our president wanted to distill and age a bourbon with wheat, something similar to a Maker’s Mark or Willet, by swapping out our rye for wheat in the mashbill. It makes a huge difference. Our president’s reasoning for doing this was as simple as he liked it and wanted to make his own. No one knew or anticipated six years ago that this style would be popular now and in demand, so when we introduced our Holladay Soft Red Wheat this past March, it was a huge success. Our president has always been a creative thinker focusing on what is next for distilling and us.”
Ben Holladay Bourbon and Holladay Red Wheat are Bottled-in-Bond, and even though these two premium bourbons are popular and widely distributed, the Holladay Distillery also has barrel-strength versions of both, called rickhouse-proof releases.
“Yeah, we wanted to be a little different, so we call our barrel strength products rickhouse-proof,” said Germano. “Every month when we bottle, whether it’s our Ben Holladay Bourbon or our Holladay Soft Red Wheat, we’ll fill some cases at rickhouse proof to be sold here on site. We also do on-site barrel picks and try to keep at least one or two expressions of a Holladay One Barrel Bourbon, our version of a single barrel bourbon. At our welcome center, you’ll always find a one-barrel bourbon of both Ben Holladay Bourbon and Holladay Soft Red wheat to sample and hopefully purchase, but they sell out almost immediately. We released our first Soft Red Wheat one barrel this past weekend, and it was gone before the weekend was over. You can always taste an individual sample, and we have flight options to taste something you’re interested in.”
Ben Holladay handcrafted bourbon is made using the distillery’s original methods and authentic recipe. Each batch is aged in level three, charred Missouri white oak barrels, and is non-chill filtered. Holladay’s master distiller blends the batches that are pulled monthly from different barrels spread out on different floors of their two, seven-story rickhouses on site. The Ben Holladay Bourbon label allows consumers to identify the blending process by displaying a blending chart that distinguishes the individual batches. Blending is done due to the temperature variances between the top and bottom floors that can produce differences in taste between the barrels. The first-floor barrels age in cooler temperatures and higher humidity versus the warmer, drier conditions of the higher floors. Although the differences diminish over time, Holladay’s distiller notes conclude that they are still present to a lesser degree at the six-year aging stage. The master distiller ensures that all blended batches match Holladay Distillery’s strict criteria for flavor profile.
Learn The Process Behind Real Missouri Bourbon And Taste The Quality Results
“We’ve used all local ingredients since 2019”, said Germano. “Our bourbon is made in Missouri, using Missouri corn and Missouri-made barrels through Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, Missouri, earning us the classification of being a real Missouri Bourbon, a classification made legally available in 2019.”
“We don’t like to tell our consumers what they should experience or taste when drinking our bourbon, simply because we’ve found that all people are different and pick out different notes,” said Germano. “But at minimum, I can tell you that Ben Holladay Bourbon is not overly oak forward and typically described as a solid bourbon, with traditional yet distinctive notes of rye, baking spice, vanilla and corn. Our Holladay Soft Red Wheat features vanilla and caramel and is softer, sweeter, and maybe a bit lighter on the mouthfeel.”
Holladay Distillery offers tours Friday through Sunday, allowing visitors the opportunity to see first-hand Holladay’s water-to-table abilities and process, all done on-site. Enjoy a cocktail on the 90-minute tour while visiting the water house and learning how Holladay Distillery creates its bourbon, including information on how their still works, the fermenting process, and Holladay’s use of the on-site aging warehouses. The informative tour culminates with a proper tasting. Holladay Distillery’s welcome center is ideal for shopping and retail. Also, it houses a full-service craft cocktail bar for visitors to hang out and enjoy a craft cocktail or choose a tasting flight to satisfy their curiosity about any products.
“We also have an on-site, state-of-the-art event space,” said Germano. “We transformed an old open-air pavilion area to now feature glass garage doors on two sides that open for a more outdoor feel when desired. It seats about 100 for corporate events, birthday parties, or other well-attended get-togethers. It’s a great place for fun, interactive, or specially ticketed public events, and it’s where we host bourbon masters panels that feature master distillers and other bourbon experts.”
Excitement And Anticipation Fill The Future
“We have another structure on site that we call the ancient cave,” said Germano. “It was actually the first structure on site and originally used by Holladay Distillery to age barrels. More recently, we’ve used it for entertaining, activities and as a cool venue to show our tour guests an introductory video about our distillery. But our master distiller started getting into using experimental barrels and needed a proper place to store and age his creations, and this ancient cave met all of his needs. So now, it’s used for the experimental barrels, which we will eventually release as our Ancient Cave Collection. We currently have 15 different types of barrels aging and waiting for their second finish, including French Oak Heavy Toast, Apple Hickory Smoked, and more. We have no specific timeline for releasing these collections other than saying they will be released when they are ready. But we can’t wait to share this unique collection with our on-site visitors and in the welcome center when they are ready.”
A Diverse Portfolio To Satisfy Your Taste
Germano tells Beverage Master Magazine that Holladay Distillery’s bourbon distribution is continuously increasing, with Iowa being the latest to get the products on shelves. Bourbon distribution tends to be a slower rollout, but orders are accepted online through Seelbach’s, an online retailer dedicated to craft distillers. The Holladay Distillery family includes 360 Vodka, Tequila Rose Strawberry Cream Liqueur, and Five Farms Irish Liqueur. Tequila Rose has been produced since the 1990s and was the first cream liqueur to hit the market other than Irish Cream, paving the way for the wide distribution of many other cream liqueurs like Rumchata. The popular Five Farms Irish Cream contains 17% alcohol, 10% of which is premium Irish Whiskey. Competitors in this market typically only include 1% Irish Whiskey, with the balance being neutral grain alcohol like vodka. Germano says that McCormick wanted to offer something a little different in the Irish Cream market, so Five Farms Irish Cream uses quality ingredients from only five known family farms, allowing McCormick Distilling to know precisely where the cream is coming from rather than relying on co-ops to provide the necessary ingredients through various sources.