Elvis is everywhere in the visitor’s center for Holladay Distillery. Ceramic decanters bearing the King’s likeness neatly line the built-in shelves of the old brick farmhouse, constructed by a Weston family who grew burley tobacco in the fields out front and made whiskey in a bourbon distillery around back.
It’s been forty years since the market for these kitschy whiskey vessels reached its zenith, giving a little distillery from small-town Missouri a national footprint. Elvis has left, but in the ensuing years, the company’s McCormick brands became staples at bars across the country.
Slowly, though, something is stirring on this spread perched in the hills above a bend in the Big Muddy. Tighten your eyes on the foot of the hill below the farmhouse and you’ll see something that, at first glance, has no earthly business being here: a seven-story whiskey warehouse that looks to have been transported from a different time and place.
This building and its shorter brother are called ironclads—oak frame, corrugated tin shell—and they’re a rare sight outside the hills of Kentucky. For the first time in thirty years, the seven-story tower is full of aged bourbon about to be bottled by the oldest business in the Kansas City area. “We came within a hair’s breadth of tearing them down because they were fire hazards and were raising our insurance rates,” says McCormick president Mick Harris. “Luckily we didn’t.”
They don’t build them like this anymore, even in Kentucky—it just doesn’t pencil out given the increased costs of not only construction and insurance, but the manpower needed to move the barrels up and down during the aging process. This primitive skyscraper is a living artifact, but it’s also the best way to make superb bourbon. Neither heated nor cooled, the temperature varies by as much as thirty degrees between the top and bottom floors. Those swings help whiskey absorb the flavors of the white oak barrels inside.
There are sweet spots scattered around the warehouse, says Kyle Merklein, the master distiller hired to fill this warehouse with a bourbon that will be labeled with the name of this distillery’s founder, Ben Holladay. The fifth floor, he says, seems to be best of all.
“This building keeps me awake at night—it’s fascinating,” Merklein says. “There’s so much potential in this warehouse—so many different things that we can create that most places don’t have access to.”
Ninety-five percent of the world’s supply of bourbon comes from Kentucky, but bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States so long as the mash bill is at least fifty-one percent corn. Craft distillers now make their own corn-based whiskeys everywhere from arid Wyoming to sweltering Texas. To make superlative bourbon, though, you need the correct climate and water rich with the right minerals.
Kentucky is cool and dry in the winter, when the distilling is done and the barrels are filled without fear of ambient bacteria. It’s hot and humid in the summer, when barreled whiskey expands while aging, drawing out the flavor of its vessel. Weston has a similar climate—chilly winters and muggy summers, with lots of desirable swings in between.
But the real reason that Weston was home to a bourbon distillery—and the reason why it has the potential to make Bourbon of a quality rare to find outside the hallowed hills of ol’ Kentuck—is the water flowing from the springs below. Kentucky’s Bluegrass region is situated on a giant shelf of what geologists call “humid climate karst,” a porous limestone base that makes up only about fifteen percent of the contiguous United States. On that shelf, which runs across the midsection of the eastern United States, the limestone tends to filter out undesirable minerals like iron from its springs while infusing the water with traces of tasty ones, like calcium and magnesium. The western edge of that shelf is in eastern Kansas, where karst gives way to the sandstone of the open west.
“There’s a reason why there’s a distillery here—it’s limestone water,” says McCormick honcho Harris. “This region of the country is very similar to Kentucky, we’re sitting on a giant limestone shelf. It makes it perfect for making bourbon.”
This geological reality of bourbon-making is an open secret in the bourbon world, says whiskey expert Lew Bryson, author of several books on the subject. Bryson recalls a conversation with a distiller from Jack Daniels who said “you could literally smell” when the ground below was right for making bourbon above.
“Bourbon distillers talk about being on the slab,” Bryson says. “The first time I ever heard it I was at Maker’s Mark, actually, and I was in a room with a bunch of writers and some distillers. They were talking about someone and said, ‘Well, they’re off the slab,’ and the other distillers in the room started laughing.”
Bryson didn’t know what they meant at the time, but he looked it up when he got home.“You don’t need to be on the slab to make whiskey,” he says. “But you do need to be on the slab if you hope to make very fine whiskey.”
The property where McCormick Distilling now sits entered the historical record in July of 1804, when Lewis and Clark stopped by, taking note of the natural spring in their journals. At the time, the property was just about a thousand feet from the Missouri River.
(The river changed course in the flood of 1881, bringing financial ruin to the port of Weston.)Drawn by the spring, early settlers opened a meat-packing plant on the property in 1836, constructing an old stone building that still stands. At that time—and until Texas was admitted to the union in 1845—Weston was the westernmost settlement in the United States.
That spring caught the attention of “Stagecoach King,” Ben Holladay, who operated the overland stagecoach routes that carried provisions and people from Kansas City to Denver and Salt Lake City before the opening of the transcontinental railroad. Holladay was the Elon Musk of his day, a prosperous tycoon with a large portfolio of booming businesses tied to transportation. Holladay, a Kentucky native, purchased the property for the natural spring, which pumps out twenty to thirty gallons a minute, year-round. He opened a bourbon distillery there in 1856, outfitting it with a still made in St. Louis and a hand-dug cistern that’s still there, thirty-five feet deep and wide enough to swallow a Winnebago. It gave Holladay what we’d today call vertical integration.
“If you were going west and you were going on a coach, you were going on Ben Holladay’s stages,” says Harris. “So when they were sending whiskey out to the cowboy towns you see in movies on those stages, whose whiskey do you think it was?”
Holladay sold his stagecoach company to Wells Fargo and turned the distillery over to his brother before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he became notorious for wildly corrupt dealings in the railroad business. The distillery changed hands numerous times over the ensuing century, but bourbon was made there continuously from 1865 until Prohibition, when they switched to making a barrel-aged “medicinal alcohol” before picking back up in the bourbon business after repeal. Things changed for McCormick in the seventies, when the collectible decanter craze swept the nation. The company capitalized on the trend, especially as it related to the booming interest in American history spurred by the nation’s bicentennial. McCormick churned out an endless array of decanters depicting iconic Americans from Mark Twain and Betsy Ross to George Washington Carver and Stonewall Jackson.
“They had mold-smashing parties,” says the company’s VP of marketing, Patrick Fee. “They’d make a certain amount and then have a party and smash the mold, and that one will never be made again.”
The biggest break for McCormick was securing the exclusive right to sell decanters in the likeness of Elvis Presley, who died in 1977. For years, McCormick was the single biggest contributor of revenue to the Elvis estate. “We did a whole bunch of those Elvis decanters,” Harris says. “Well, those Elvis decanters were so popular nationwide that we ended up with a nationwide distribution network, and when the decanter craze faded we started running McCormick value-priced spirits down that chain—it took this from a small regional distillery to a company with a national footprint.”
By the mid-80s, the decanter business was a bust. Brown spirits weren’t doing much better, as Baby Boomers shunned whiskies for vodka and tequila. The McCormick company was doing well in the bottling business distributing what Harris describes as “premium products at popular prices,” selling spirits that found home in wells across the country. In 1984, the company shut down the still, and stopped filling new barrels.
“The doors were locked, everything was left in place for thirty years,” Harris says. “The still sat there unused, and the warehouses sat empty, until 2015 when we started the whole thing up again.”
It’s no secret that bourbon is booming. Sales of the spirit have grown steadily in recent years, tripling since 1999, spurring a shortage that led to cult-favorite Maker’s Mark threatening to water down their product to meet demand, and causing coveted small-batch bottlings like Pappy Van Winkle to become all but unobtainable.
After a quarter-century as the kings of well spirits, McCormick just so happens to have everything it takes to join the party at an elite level. The success of that project is on the shoulders of Master Distiller Kyle Merklein.
Merklein is a farm kid from northwest Kansas with a master’s degree from biological and agricultural engineering. Before becoming a distiller, his specialty was studying how to “use Thermobifida fusca for the production of butyric acid from lignocellulosic material.”
“If you were to chew up a barrel, I could convert that barrel to ethanol,” he says. “It would probably not be nearly as tasty. I prefer to keep the ethanol in the barrel.”
Merklein’s wife is from the area. He landed a job as the distiller after meeting another employee in town. Bourbon is as much art as science, and Merklein has been studying the old-fashioned way—he has about a hundred half-full bottles at his house to prove it.
It’s rare for a company to fill up a seven-story warehouse with fifteen thousand barrels of a product no one has tasted. But that’s not exactly the case, says the McCormick team. They have about a case of the old stuff still stashed away, and detailed records of how it was made.
No one around today remembers the conversations surrounding the shuttering of the stillhouse in 1984, but it seems to have been abrupt—at least based on what was discovered upon its reopening, which included log books open on the table and lab equipment left in place.
“The one thing is, at least we are not flying blind,” Merklein says. “We’ve made bourbon here before. One of our production people made bourbon here in the eighties. We can go back to some of those lab [records], we can go back to some of those old bottles on the shelf and try those.”
The art of making great bourbon ultimately comes down to the barrel, says Bryson, the whiskey expert. “There’s a saying in the industry that eighty percent of the flavor comes from the barrel,” says Bryson.
“That’s shorthand—it’s the barrel, the warehouse and the year.”
Bourbon makers agonize over the right size and shape of barrel and what proof to start at, not to mention decisions related to where and how to build their warehouses. The larger the operation, the better the odds of a “special barrel,” Bryson says. “If you have more barrels you are going to get some superlative stuff just by chance.”
For McCormick, the decisions tend to be made using one factor: How it used to be done. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s a century of experience to rely on, in a roundabout way?
Merklein has done lab work on current barrels and compared it to the results in handwritten ledgers from the eighties. And in what may be a first in the booze business, the government has proven helpful, in the form of old records from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. For most of our nation’s history, taxes on alcohol were the primary source of funds for the federal government, which resulted in TTB obsessively documenting the distilling process to guard against bootlegging. That left detailed records for Merklein: “We can go to those old TTB records and see they distilled to one-hundred-and-twenty proof on the low wines on the distillation column and then one-hundred-and-thirty on the high wines, and so we can replicate that—because your distillation proofs will change the overall flavor of the distillate. We can see the barrel entry-proof, and go back to that historic number. All the record-keeping was actually helpful.”
They’re using the original mash bill, the same blend of grains that were cooked here for a century. “That original mash bill, that made some very good bourbon,” Merklein says. In 2015, when they reopened the still house, McCormick’s team called on the company that built the old stills, Vendome of Louisville, to inspect and advise. The old stills were decayed beyond use, so Vendome was commissioned to build a new column still with a pot doubler that matches the old ones as closely as they could. Doing things the old way is not always easier. But Merklein thinks it can pay off. That extends to a unique process the company is using to make its sour mash, which utilizes two cookers to heat the grains and release their starches, instead of one.
Most distilleries start by boiling their corn and then add in the rest of the grains based on their hardiness. “The efficient thing to do is to have one cooker, it just makes everything easier,” Merklein says. “Well, that’s not what we’re doing.”
Holladay Bourbon is made by cooking the corn at a high temperature in one vessel while cooking the smaller, more delicate grains at a lower temperature in a separate vessel. “We’re cooking those separately because we want to extract those flavors—we’re focusing on those before we combine them for the final product.”
Merklein explains the advantages of the process in technical terms—the congeners of bourbon come from the proteins and must be properly extracted to truly bring out the flavor of those small grains—but the proof, as they say, is in the glass. Merklein produces a small hand drill to spring a leak in his bottom-floor test barrel. The bourbon that squirts out is both outstanding and unique, rich with an uncommon depth of grain flavors. And it still has another year to go.
“There won’t be any whiskey sold until it’s at least six years old,” says Harris. “That was always the sweet spot for this particular location, and we’re honoring that. We’re sitting and we’re waiting and we’re sitting and we’re waiting—but it’s the right thing to do.”
Doing things the right way, the ancient way, is the guiding principle behind the whole project. In an era where everybody seemingly craves “authenticity,” and where it often seems in short supply, Holladay Bourbon will be the real deal.
“We’re making whiskey the way they’ve made whiskey here since 1856,” says Harris. “It’s important to us that everything that comes out of here is in line with our tradition. As far as what everyone else does, I can’t speak to that. But if you want something real, come here.”