In a game of chess, the results are binary — there’s one clear winner and one clear loser. One distiller in the heart of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Green River Spirits Co. is “winning the game” on two fronts in the competitive world of spirits. Green River not only distills award-winning whiskeys and bourbons for its own bar and local distribution but creates private-label spirits and labels for dozens of clients annually.
Nestled on a 26-acre campus in the rolling hills of Owensboro, Ky., Green River Spirits Co. is a brand creation company with a leadership team that includes eighth-generation distiller and Master Distiller Jacob Call, CEO Simon Burch and a 20-member team within the 100+ person organization. The new product development experts are dedicated to “bringing brands to life” in a multitude of ways: with retailers, inside agencies or leading global wine and spirit supplier companies, explains Cathy Steen, chief commercial officer (CCO) at Green River.
Founded in 1885 and strategically located on the southern banks of the Ohio River, Green River Distillery is DSP-KY-10, the 10th oldest registered distillery in Kentucky. Today, it is the fourth largest independent bourbon distiller in the world, distilling 90,000 barrels of liquid gold a year, the company says.
“Many of history’s most beloved whiskey brands were born here,” Steen shares. “Our customers can tap into that legacy and be part of a home that’s building on that historic legacy. … At the heart of our business is our ‘crown jewel,’ the historic Green River distillery.”
Among the ways that Green River Spirits builds upon its 136-year legacy is through its participation as a heritage member (since 2018) on the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which, since 1999, invites visitors to go “Where the Spirit Leads You.”
“We’re a large working distillery, so we provide a unique experience for visitors to the ins and outs of distilling and bourbon creation,” Steen explains. “That’s our objective — to provide a tour that reflects that scale and scope — and you’ll see our operations and production teams at work.
“We made a significant investment in our visitor’s center, which was closed due to COVID, so we’re excited to open our doors to new experiences now that the world is opening up more,” she continues. “We have elevated experiences for our guests, including the opportunity to meet Master Distiller Jacob Call. Those are launching as we speak.”
When it comes to making whiskey, Steen points out that Kentuckian and Master Distiller Call is committed to the highest quality ingredients and traditional processes. “His family’s history with distilling goes back eight generations, back to the earliest days of bourbon in this country,” she explains. “Jacob grew up around whiskey, and you could say it’s in his blood. Jacob’s experience is equal parts know-how and a love for the art handed down from his family.”
Bourbon trail shines a spotlight
Hearing brand stories and tasting products is an integral part of the bourbon trail experience. On the western end of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Green River Spirits, which is called “Hallowed Ground” by Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) President Eric Gregory, is the first stop for many visitors taking the trail from west to east, Steen says.
“We welcome visitors from all over the world,” Steen notes. “The KDA does an amazing job showcasing the bourbon trail and all the distilleries in the state. We benefit significantly from their efforts and the spotlight they help shine on all of us.”
Thousands of guests annually visit the Green River distillery where they can sample and purchase a variety of bourbon and whiskey blends along with many of the distillery’s brand partner’s offerings. For instance, whiskey connoisseurs can imbibe on 51.9% ABV (103.8 proof) Bradshaw Bourbon from NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw or the 46% ABV (92 proof) Yellow Banks, one of the bourbons sold locally of which a part of the sales supports corn research.
In addition to making world-class bourbons and rye, the distillery now markets and distributes a few brands locally. “One of those is Yellow Banks, a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey bourbon celebrating the rich history of distilling in Owensboro,” Steen says. “The whiskey is made with 100% Kentucky-grown corn and was developed in collaboration with the Kentucky Corn Growers Association. …Yellow Banks has been receive excellent reviews, including a 93 points rating from Wine Enthusiast.”
With so many bourbon brands to choose from, what differentiates Green River whiskies from the rest?
“Our standard mash bill has a higher rye contribution — it’s a bourbon of great depth and character,” the COO explains. “We also produce outstanding rye. I’ve had a love affair with rye-based spirits my entire working career. I always describe Jacob’s rye as exquisite because it really is.”
More innovation is forthcoming, as a revived historic Green River bourbon whiskey will join the distillery’s lineup later this year. “That is on the heels of last year’s revival of the Green River Distillery itself,” Steen notes.
A brand creation company
Green River Spirits also has a “vibrant business” creating spirits brands for its partners in other categories like vodka, rum, gin and flavored whiskey, Steen says. They are produced in Green River’s production facility in Charleston, S.C., which is known for its flavor and culinary innovation, the company says.
“We also follow trends and the team is constantly tinkering around with flavor profiles to add to our flavor library,” Steen notes. “Right now, we’re working on more than 20 new products for current and new customers, and we’re excited to help bring their visions to life.”
The point is that brands don’t necessarily have to have their own distillery to get noticed as long as drinkers love what they’re drinking. The COO notes that Green River Spirits offers everything needed to develop and grow brands that win at shelf — from brand design and liquid development to production and logistics support.
“For example, if a brand owner has a brand idea and simply needs help with liquid development, we can do that. Or, if a brand owner wants to start a spirits brand but needs help from brand concept all the way to bottling and packaging, we can put together a plan for that,” Steen explains. “We’re lucky to have a CEO who has incredible experience in building brands at Green River — Simon Burch — and we regularly tap into his know-how … he is a fantastic resource for our partners as well.”
When asked how Green River differentiates itself between concocting private-label brands and working with some of the world’s fastest-growing spirits brands versus its core distilled spirits, Steen responds that “there is room for many brands to live and grow together on the shelf” because spirits categories like bourbon, rye and flavored whiskey are a hot growth category.
“Our priority is always our partners and they know they come first at Green River,” she explains. “…When we opened the distillery doors in 2016, our model was to support other people’s business needs — that remains our commitment. Brand creation for our partners is at the heart of what we do, and we have assembled a team of professionals to create incredible brands that showcase Jacob’s amazing liquid.
“In addition to the private brand creation work we do, we have a vibrant bulk program and ship barrels and tankers worldwide,” she says.
While the Kentucky Derby is synonymous with the Bluegrass State, Owensboro —one of the key epicenters of bourbon production in Kentucky prior to the turn of the century — is a city famous for its amazing “Bs.” It is home to the national bluegrass museum, some of the best barbeque in the country and, of course, making world-class bourbon, Steen notes.
Reviving the Green River bourbon, reopening the revived, historic distillery, and showcasing Green River’s rich bourbon legacy and the city of Owensboro bring Steen and the team excitement and joy.
“When it comes to whiskey, there’s no better place for brand partners to call home than our distillery, Steen concludes. “We produce outstanding bourbon and rye — it starts with liquid. The future for Green River is all about our aged agenda. Clearly, bourbon and rye continue to drive excitement and growth in the distilled spirits business. We’re beyond proud to be a part of it — and to help our customers anyway we can.”