The mecca of bourbon is firmly established on Kentucky soil, but rarely is the soil itself recognized. Bluegrass distilleries have been funneling barrel-aged goodness worldwide for over a century. In that time, the native U.S. spirit has remained beloved, and a recent spike in interest ensures that barrels will continue rolling across the state for years to come. Carving a space for a new distillery in this industry of established giants is no easy feat. Creating an exciting and innovative bourbon, amidst those monoliths of whiskey and a background of ever-multiplying craft distilleries, is an even more daunting endeavor. Undeterred, master distiller Joyce Nethery turned to the soil. What began as a passion project, eventually inspired a ‘ground to glass’ standard that separates Jeptha Creed from the rest.
Around the time Jeptha Creed was first being conceptualized, Joyce was embarking on a personal gardening journey. She was inspired by memories of tomatoes from her mother’s garden. Joyce recalls a time where she would pick tomatoes that were so irresistibly delicious, “they wouldn’t even make it into the house.” She undertook the laborious, yet rewarding, project of gardening. She was determined to grow produce that rivaled the robustly flavorful tomatoes of her childhood, mainly because you can’t find tasty tomatoes in the grocery store. While Joyce admits that the hybrid tomatoes lining grocery bins might, “look pretty,” and fulfill a necessary portion of the produce market, she can’t help but notice how bland they taste. So, she spent time researching and seeking out different styles of tomatoes to grow herself.
Intent upon resurrecting the robust flavor she fondly remembered, Joyce began growing hybrid tomato varietals. Gardening allows no shortcuts, and so she did all the woeful weeding and tedious tending required. And yet, after putting in the effort to harvest these home-grown tomatoes, she found herself disappointed. The tomatoes were pretty and red, as you would expect to find at the store, but they were only marginally more flavorful than their GMO hybrid counterparts. While slightly closer to achieving what she set out to do, these tomatoes were not nearly as good as the cherished ones from her childhood. So, Joyce kept researching.
In her quest, Joyce discovered heirloom varietals. The heirloom tomato varietals that she began experimenting with were mostly ‘indeterminate.’ This means that their sprawling vines meander and outstretch as much as their environment will allow. In a good year, you can find groups of tomatoes along those sprawling vines that seemingly never end – hence, indeterminate. In contrast with heirloom indeterminates, hybrid ‘determinate’ plants have been genetically modified to enhance specific characteristics which make them more manageable to grow and ensure they’re brightly colored to sell. Compared to the hybrid varieties, open-pollenated indeterminates are much harder to cultivate – requiring much more intensive oversight. Despite the more exhaustive growing process, Joyce was pleasantly surprised. These heirloom tomatoes rewarded her the nostalgia she longed for. This is where the flavor was! Her pursuits warranted, Joyce recognized that heirloom tomatoes offer a remarkable difference in taste.
Excited by the promise of heirloom tomato varietals, she then branched out to other produce including watermelon. She found an heirloom varietal of watermelon called ‘Orange Glow’ that featured a bright orange inside, and remembers it as the “best, sweetest, [most] gorgeous,” watermelon ever. These gardening successes solidified the importance of heirloom varietals in her mind. While their cultivation was much more intensive, the flavor justified the work. Suddenly, her ventures in heirloom gardening encouraged a shift in mentality about their acres of farmland. If so much flavor was being sacrificed, even in hybrid varietals, why would they be interested in eating the GMO corn that they were currently growing? An opportunity was emerging.
This was all happening in the early 2010s, as the family was considering a transition into distilling. The Netherys were successfully operating a livestock farm, growing highly manageable corn to provide for the animals. They knew that if they were to begin a bourbon company, they had no interest in producing a run-of-the-mill product. They wanted to arrive at something unique and creative that also encapsulated their family history and interests. Actively tending to rows and rows of corn, the answer may seem obvious now, but there wasn’t a clear path from farm plots to grain cookers. In fact, Joyce admits that “the concept of eating the corn ourselves, was actually kind of new to us.” Growing corn for livestock was one thing, but providing a uniquely flavored bourbon would require unique ingredients. In need of inspiration, Joyce’s gardening adventures reminded her of the monumental difference between growing for sustenance and growing for flavor.
Surrounded by acres of farmland, it was time to experiment with heirloom varietals on a larger scale. Expanding this process involved research into various heirloom corns. The industry-standard GMO corn had sustained their livestock in the dairy and beef industry, but Joyce was now highly conscious of the opportunities their farm soil could allow. While researching heirloom varietals, Joyce stumbled upon Bloody Butcher Corn, which was renowned for making flavorful cornbread. The concurrence of her gardening revelations and their bourbon interests allowed Joyce to realize that heirloom corn could be what set their bourbon apart. If the Bloody Butcher Corn was renowned for a delicious cornbread, she thought, “what about bourbon?” And so, their journey with Bloody Butcher Corn began.
Growing tall and disheveled, Bloody Butcher Corn soon engulfed their farmlands. While requiring more attention than the GMO alternatives, the difference was immediate and obvious. Being a farming and hunting family, the Netherys have many fond memories watching turkey and deer peruse their cornfields. But something interesting occurred when the heirloom corn began thriving. They noticed a marked increase in traffic, and a strong preference for the new tasty corn! The Netherys witnessed a growing apathy for their yellow corn and a profound love for their Bloody Butcher Corn. With plots side by side, they saw a growing number of critters repurposing the yellow corn fields as nap sites and traveling to chow-down on the irresistible Bloody Butcher Corn when they woke up. Presumably attracted by the higher protein in Bloody Butcher Corn, this was the first sighting of what would be called the ‘critter’s share.’
Their first experiments with heirloom corn bourbon offered a surprisingly flavorful and distinct bourbon – just like in cornbread. It became clear that anything other than heirloom corn would be a compromise. Now featuring a full line-up of Bloody Butcher Corn bourbons, Jeptha Creed has proven the difference heirloom corn provides. Among their Bloody Butcher Corn bourbons is a specialty 90% corn bourbon, which has received praise for the unique flavor notes heightened within the mash bill. It’s safe to say that the Bloody Butcher Corn does indeed make a distinguishable and delightful bourbon. Now experimenting with other styles of heirloom corn, soon releasing a bourbon made of Red White and Blue corn, they have found their niche. Joyce’s mission to revive the mouthwatering produce of her mother’s garden became a differentiating feature of Jeptha Creed’s original bourbon. It appears that leading with your heart can sometimes allow your lifestyle and livelihood to intertwine in a beautifully syncretic way.