Thu. Jul 25th, 2024
Eastern Light Distilling Rendering, Morehead Kentucky

Kentucky communities are finding economic development flows after they vote themselves wet.

Over the past decade, almost all of Kentucky has discovered the state’s trademark bourbon history and the economic opportunities that come with it, so much so that there are only five dry counties left in the state: Clinton, Elliot, Knott, Menifee and Morgan.
All the other 115 counties are either wet or damp, with of some sort of alcohol sales or production.
Staghorn, an Atlanta based premium spirits company, announced last month the launch of its first ever distillery, Garrard County Distilling Co., located in Lancaster Ky. The $250 million project will become the largest all-new independent distillery in the state.
This addition was only possible after Garrard County, dry since the 1800s, voted itself wet in November 2023.
Garrard County Distilling Co. is expected to drive tourism greatly, as well as create over 60 new local jobs.
Anthony Roy, Garrard County’s Industrial Development Council Chairman, said the distillery currently has about 50 employees, majority of whom are from Garrard County. Roy said he thinks the county is blessed to get this new distillery.
“It’s definitely going to help the economy in the community, because it’s giving work to the people who are actually living there, so I think that’s a great thing,” Roy said.
This provides community members with local work, rather than them having to travel for a good wage.
“Once they get the facility fully completed it will be state of the art, so we are, as a county, very pleased,” Roy said.
Economic Development Director Jeff VanHook said the distillery and $250 million investment will improve local government services. Local job creation means occupational taxes and create revenue streams that nothing else can for local governments.
“We can increase our tax base values, but that doesn’t do anything for the county governments to be able to do additional investments in economic development,” VanHook said. “All elected officials and leadership in Garrard County are working collectively and collaboratively on both local and regional partnerships to create economic development interest, investment and innovation for Garrard County and the region.”
With a population of approximately 17,000, Garrard County is just one of many smaller Kentucky communities to discover the economic opportunity that comes with voting wet.
In June 2023, it was announced that Eastern Light Distilling, a new and upcoming distillery run by industry veterans, would be investing $143 million into creating its new bourbon space in Morehead in Rowan County.
This locally owned and operated distillery will create an estimated 50 new jobs in the community, according to news releases. It will create innovation in Eastern Kentucky, unlike anything before.
Last month, the company unveiled its co-founders as Caleb Kilburn and Cordell Lawrence. The two met while working at Kentucky Peerless in Louisville. There Kilburn worked his way up there from laborer to master distiller.
Cordell held a COO position there, working mostly with the marketing, branding and sales, Kilburn said, while he focused more on operations and production. This made their partnership a perfect fit.
“We had, over the years, become amazing friends and we had this really complementary skillset, as far as how we see things,” Kilburn said.
Being from Eastern Kentucky, he felt there was little opportunity for him and his career there, unless he created something himself.
Eastern Light Distilling Co. is going to be a craft brand producer, catering and customizing to customers’ wants and needs. Rather than being a distillery built only on its own brands and quietly doing some contract production, Kilburn said they want contract production to be their main focus.
“Our whole identity is that we are put on this earth to enable craft brand success,” Kilburn said. “90% of what we produce is going to be for these craft clientele brands or entities.”
Kilburn wants to allow buyers a chance to play a role in their spirits’ genesis.
Other counties are sits for ongoing innovation in the bourbon industry, and this trend is expected to continue throughout the state.
This is absolutely a trend, said Jack Mazurak, director of governmental and regulatory affairs for the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). Over the past 20 years, he said, bourbon has taken off in terms of sales popularity and distillery visitation.
“It’s seen as an authentic product, which it is; it’s America’s native spirit,” Mazurak said.
Craft distillers are opening across the state, which does many things for a local economy.
“That’s good on many levels, one of which is they bring revitalization and new economic activity wherever they locate, whether that’s in a rural location or in an urban core,” Mazurak said. “There were only six distilling companies in the state, representing eight distilleries just 15 years ago. Now there are over 100 distilleries.”
This has had a large effect on distilling jobs and cooperage, he said, as well as professional services, such as accounting and legal, also rippling through the three-tier system with wholesalers and retailers.
Mazurak said the KDA’s founding the Kentucky Bourbon trail 25 years ago has also increased tourism rates throughout the state. They now have over 2 million visits per year on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
“To have people coming from not only all over the country but all over the world to Kentucky, and in many cases both our cities and our rural areas, is a wonderful thing for the vibrancy of those communities and for the tax revenue it generates,” Mazurak said.
KDA members and some of Kentucky’s elected officials will meet Tuesday, Feb. 6, at the Capitol in Frankfort to release a new biennial study examining the bourbon industry’s impact on local, state and global economics, including everything from jobs and tax revenue to agriculture and tourism.


Original Pour By Kristen Roberts


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