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University of Kentucky James B. Beam Institute distillery opens doors to industry students

Shepherd Snyder
The James B. Beam Institute distillery on the University of Kentucky campus.

Doors opened Monday at the University of Kentucky’s James B. Beam Institute. It’s a school initiative that offers students a chance to learn the ins and outs of Kentucky’s spirits industry.

That includes an actual, on-campus distillery alongside a barrel storage warehouse. The institute has been a part of the school since 2015, but the physical buildings are built and open for hands-on learning starting this fall.

“I'm definitely excited,” Mike Henner, a UK senior and chemical engineering major, said. “This place is going to be a great place to learn how to do all those processes that we see everywhere in the state of Kentucky is known for.”

Henner is using the institute to add another skillset to his main coursework. The program is part of the school's College of Agriculture - but it’s also available to students from different colleges, like Henner.

“There's a class offered here that we can take that involves bourbon production for chemical engineers,” Henner said. “So it teaches us all about how to still process, what the mash should be and all that good stuff.”

The institute allows students to take classes towards a certificate in Distillation, Wine, and Brewing Studies alongside their degree. That includes required classes on the science and production of distillation, along with electives for classes in food science, hospitality and even the history of bourbon.

Eric Gregory is the President of the Kentucky Distillers Association. He sees the Beam Institute as a way to bring in workers from all types of academic backgrounds.

“You don't have to be a distiller to work in a distillery,” Gregory said. “There's about 150 other jobs, you can do everything from being a tour guide, to a brand ambassador and so forth.”

Last semester, 46 students graduated from the program with a certificate. But according to Institute Director Seth DeBolt, that number doesn’t account for students interested in just taking a couple extra classes.

“For every 100 students that are coming through the certificate, you've probably got 1,000 that are learning about this industry,” DeBolt said. “And that's a great way to potentially attract a more robust workforce.”

It’ is also a way to let students be more hands-on with their work. DeBolt said the physical experience of working with a distillery allows for students to be connected to the real-life goings on of the industry.

“If you think about it being a functional craft distillery, where you have a fully mature classroom that can go link in with Bardstown or it could link with Japan or Edinburgh, you have full connectivity with the world through that classroom,” Debolt said.

That means linking with local partners in the Kentucky spirits industry, like Brad Boswell. He’s the CEO of Independent Stave Company in Morehead, which manufactures bourbon barrels. They are supporting the campus warehouse, which can store 660 barrels of whiskey.

Boswell said he’d like to see the warehouse used not just for training, but for experimentation and research.

“We'll make you know, barrels at different flavor characteristics,” Boswell said. “We'll take different mash bills, we'll bring them in there and we'll let them set for five, six years, seven years. And you know, see the results and do, you know, sensory analysis and chemical analysis all right here on campus.”

No plans are in place to sell the spirits distilled on campus yet. But Boswell said it’s an opportunity he’d like to give the students sometime in the future.

“That can take a long time before it develops, probably at least four or five, six years before the barrels mature,” Boswell said. “We have a lot of time to figure that out. But that'd be a dream. Could you imagine every year having your barrel releases from the University of Kentucky warehouse on campus? That'd be a dream.”

The Kentucky Distiller’s Association says bourbon is the commonwealth’s $9 billion signature industry and generates more than 22,500 jobs.

Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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