Craft Distillery Tour: MB Roland Distillery

My mom has a habit of sending me clippings from the local newpaper back home in Kentucky. Usually she sends my high-school friends' wedding announcements or articles about local political happenings. Sometimes these clippings hang on the fridge for a week or two, but mostly they go straight into the recycling bin after a quick read. One article she sent recently caught my interest though. It told about a new craft distillery that had opened right down the road from my hometown in Pembroke, KY.

The idea of craft-whiskey being produced in Pembroke blew my mind. This is the Pembroke where I used to ride four-wheelers on my friends' farms and once spent hours trying to steal a road sign reading "Welcome to Pembroke, Population 1,000." The Pembroke where the population includes large numbers of Amish, Southern Baptists, and other groups for whom alcohol is a taboo subject. This I had to see.

Conveniently, I was already planning a trip home to visit family over Easter weekend. So on a lovely spring morning my mom, my wife, and I drove out to Pembroke (technically the distillery is in St. Elmo - a crossroads in some cornfields) to tour the MB Roland Distillery. As we pulled up the gravel drive it looked like any other small farming operation with a lovely white farmhouse (built by the Amish family that had owned the land prior to the distiller), a barn, and a couple of newer-looking metal sheds. There were a few cars in the parking lot, and some even had out-of-town plates, our first indication that MB Roland, open only since November 2009, is already drawing visitors from at least as far away as Paducah, KY (about 75 miles). We went up to the porch and peeked inside the house. The door led right into the gift-shop and tasting room and as we entered Paul Tomaszewski, the co-founder and head distiller, told us that they were just about to do a tasting. Perfect timing.

Along with about five other visitors we tasted the full range of products that MB Roland had available - two types of un-aged corn whiskey, white and spiced rums, and a legal version of moonshine labeled True Kentucky Shine. MB Roland uses locally-grown white corn for its whiskeys, and they say this is responsible for their unique sweet flavor. One of the whiskeys, labeled Black Dog, is made with white corn that has been dark-fired in a tobacco barn, giving it a smokey, peaty flavor akin to scotch. The creativity shown in these one-of-a-kind products should go a long way towards helping MB Roland establish a name for itself as a groundbreaking distiller.

After the tasting Mr. Tomaszewski led our group out to the metal building where the real action takes place while his wife, the co-founder of MB Roland, stayed behind to watch over the gift shop. Inside what looked like average workshop was a tiny, but very tidy, distilling operation. A few vats of fermenting mash sat in one corner, another corner held the hand-operated bottling and labeling equipment, and we stood in the corner nearest the entrance next to the beautiful copper pot still where all of MB Roland's products are distilled, one run at a time. It was great to be able to see the entire distillation process in one room, and after a brief description of his operation, Mr. Tomaszewski fielded numerous questions from the group. He shared a wealth of information about distilling as well as the arduous process of opening a new distillery and starting from scratch. We were even able to observe close-up their latest concoction slowly dripping from the still into large a glass carboy

After having all our questions answered, it was back to the gift shop to grab a few bottles to bring back to Pennsylvania. MB Roland products are currently available only in Western Kentucky and Tennessee, so I thought it best to stock up since it might be a while before these products make it up to my neck of the woods. MB Roland may be a bit out of the way for the casual visitor, but if you're really curious about how true small-batch, craft whiskeys are made it's a perfect place to see the process in action. You'll also get to taste some of the most unique whiskeys on the planet while you're there, and you won't be able to resist taking a bottle or two home. All that in little 'ol Pembroke.

Since my visit MB Roland has launched two new products - Strawberry Kentucky Shine and Apple Pie Kentucky Shine. They are also offering their first barrel-aged products starting in late July. If you're able to try any of these before I get a chance to I would be happy to post your tasting notes here on the blog.