Home-Team Spirit At Jeptha Creed Distillery
In April, Joyce Nethery posted a video of herself at the controls of a large tractor pulling a planter on her family’s farm in Shelbyville. In her breezy manner, Nethery remarked to the camera that the day was ideal for planting heirloom Bloody Butcher corn that, when matured and dried this fall, was destined for the fermenters at her family’s Jeptha Creed Distillery, located on the same grounds.
To whiskey nerds, seeing a woman farmer-distiller in action rivaled a Bigfoot sighting. Nethery is likely the only one of her kind in the legal distilling world. To heritage food geeks, seeing someone using a nearly forgotten grain to make whiskey on the same dirt where it’s grown ascribes her near rock star status.
That her video created some whiskey groupies amuses Nethery.
“Farming is just what we do, and the idea that people get excited about that, well, I guess that’s unusual for me,” she says. “But when I think about the fact that our entire process happens right here on our farm, that it’s totally sustainable, I know that’s significant.”
Opened last fall, Jeptha Creed is the latest in a long line of businesses created and run by Joyce and her husband, Bruce Nethery. When the couple met, Bruce was a dairy farmer and Joyce was a process engineer in an industrial-scale distillation facility. After they married, he created a trucking firm that handles the removal of automobiles from rail cars. Joyce became a mother of two, a school science teacher and bookkeeper-manager of Bruce’s businesses.
“He’s an entrepreneur, and even though it was out of my comfort zone to leave my job, I wanted to be part of that,” Joyce Nethery says. “Being your own boss just becomes part of your life.”
Growing up on a small farm around the imposing equipment needed to operate a commercial enterprise made Joyce Nethery comfortable reentering that lifestyle. But when Bruce’s next entrepreneurial itch was to open a distillery, Joyce wasn’t certain he was serious. Undeniably, bourbon was big everywhere, though at the time there were no operating distilleries in Shelby County. The Netherys weren’t big spirits consumers either, but Bruce envisioned a sizeable business opportunity tied to Kentucky’s hottest commodity.
“We had the land, the grain and the know-how to at least get started,” he says. “I just liked the idea, and I got excited about it.”
So excited that he signed up for a course in whiskey distilling at Louisville’s Moonshine University—but so busy he couldn’t even attend it.
“He had a work obligation that he had to meet, and so he convinced me to go sit in for him,” Joyce Nethery says. On the first day of the five-day class, she was hooked. A return to distilling, albeit spirits born of homegrown grains, enthused her.
“I fell in love with copper [stills] all over again,” she says. “I knew we could make this happen.”
While Joyce and Bruce designed every aspect of the distillery, their daughter, Autumn, headed to brewing and distilling school at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Other than enlisting an architect to tweak their ideas for the structure’s layout, Jeptha Creed is of their own making.
Expansive and modern, the distillery was designed
both for function and tourism. With the 2016 passage of legislation allowing cocktails to be served at a distillery, the couple wanted Jeptha Creed to be a community gathering spot for concerts, weddings and private events—as well as place to buy branded swag and its spirits.
“We’re aging whiskey and making moonshine and vodka, and that takes time,” Joyce Nethery says. The distillery’s $4 million buildout was funded without loans or outside investors. “Creating a distillery is extremely expensive, so you need more than one revenue stream.”
Success in distilling also takes a story. Whether it’s the imagined history of a backwoods distiller writ large in a sepia-toned ad campaign, or verifiable claims made about the provenance of a great spirit, marketing goes a long way toward selling spirits. Jeptha Creed’s pitch begins with its Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom, non-GMO variety first cultivated in the 19th century. Its kernels are colored deep maroon and, unlike the yellow-brown hue of a common whiskey mash, a Bloody Butcher mash is grayish-purple. Yet like all grains, once distilled, it’s crystal clear.
On the palate, however, the new make is rich and full bodied, and noticeably softer off the still than other corn-based spirits.
“That unique flavor is what we were after, and once we started experimenting with it, we knew we were onto something,” Joyce Nethery says. The deer and raccoons roaming the fields confirmed her flavor hunch. For years the Netherys have watched the animals walk right by their yellow corn crop to eat the Bloody Butcher corn. “I guess they have good taste!”
All the corn used at Jeptha Creed comes from the Netherys’ farm—a fact made possible by its micro-distillery status. Its current capacity is less than 10 (53-gallon) barrels per day, a tiny fraction of daily output at the state’s industrial distilleries. In the past few years, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace began growing corn on or near their properties, but with fields of only 55 and 18 acres respectively, such miniscule harvests had to be earmarked for special-edition spirits.
According to Denny Potter, master distiller at Heaven Hill, to make all the company’s whiskey brands, the distillery needs 23,000 acres of corn per year—a harvest 418 times larger than the 55-acre yield from the field next to its Bardstown headquarters. The corn harvested from that smaller planting will yield 1,000 total barrels of whiskey, which is only half of its daily output at its distillery in Louisville.
In 2016, Buffalo Trace grew Japonica Striped corn on its experimental farm, and the year before it grew Boone County white corn, the same strain used by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr., who distilled there in 1870. This year it planted the coldly named CF790 Conventional, a strain of corn created to help enhance the integrity of the soil.
At Bardstown Bourbon Co., in Bardstown, both corn and wheat are grown on the property and nearby. According to its CEO, David Mandell, the 500 barrels of bourbon those harvests are expected to yield will be used “completely for our estate products. Growing those grains is a representation of being connected to the community, to the land and to the provenance of what we are.”
Corn isn’t the only thing the Netherys grow. Their property has fruit trees and beehives and this year they planted a wide array of herbs (for use in its cocktail bar and its house-made bitters), berry and grape vines, and a new strain of blue corn Bruce Nethery is cultivating.
“I can’t tell you much about it other than I know no one else will have it,” he says, grinning.
The goal is to have an immersive farm tour that helps guests make the connection between plants and distilling. To most, Bruce Nethery says, spirits “just come off a shelf. They never think about the farming that goes into it. We’d like to show them where they come from.”