Interview Issue 23

Interview: The life of Caleb Kilburn

We get behind the scenes with Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.’s master distiller
Caleb Kilburn 

As much as it is a science, whiskey must also be considered a work of art and in many cases a pursuit of a passion. For Caleb Kilburn, master distiller at Kentucky Peerless Distilling in Louisville, the opportunity to take on the role he currently occupies was a dream come true. 

Picture Credit: Kentucky Peerless Distilling

The skill Caleb has demonstrated while executing this dream role was celebrated during the recent 2023 Whisky Magazine Awards America, where he was crowned the American Master Distiller of the Year in the Icons of Whisky Awards. 

Caleb said the moment the announcement was made left him completely blindsided and humbled by the honor. “The room was filled with so many amazing artisans that I look up to, so I had zero expectations of being recognized,” he explains. “I even sat there dumbfounded as my bio was being read, looking around wondering, ‘Who else did these things?’. 

“The surge of emotions got the better of me as I climbed to the stage, teary eyed and hugging everyone that I could. The moment was pure joy, and being able to celebrate with my wife, our Peerless family, and my friends around the industry made for an amazing night.”

Picture Credit: Kentucky Peerless Distilling

Back to reality and not every day can be filled with award ceremonies, but it does make those moments of recognition all the more special. It is a commendable trait among those working in the production of whiskey that they are some of the most humble people you will encounter, working day in, day out in the quiet pursuit of the perfect drop.

While he was growing up, Caleb referred to himself as a tinkerer, with anything surrounding physics, biology, or chemistry totally fascinating him. These experiences developed and grew into a love of the science of whiskey during his college years. He elaborates, “The way that bourbon’s production weaves together so many different disciplines made me want to work around it, granted… I had no idea where I could fit in.”

As it turned out, there was a perfect whiskey space for Caleb to fit in to at Kentucky Peerless, with thanks to his training and drive. As a chemist, he had studied multiple disciplines that secured an integrated sciences minor; then came a course at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, where he was able to train as an understudy to several of the industry’s unsung heroes. “Pete Kamer of Barton, Randy Allender of Jim Beam, Rob Sherman of Vendome Copper and Brass, and of course, Corky Taylor of Kentucky Peerless all played a massive role in shaping me,” he says. 

Picture Credit: Kentucky Peerless Distilling

“Even though I wanted to work in distilled spirits, at first I thought that reaching the position of master distiller would be too big of a dream.” However, Caleb didn’t let those thoughts hinder him and set his focus on working hard to get as close as possible to his dreams.  

“I set off to focus on learning everything that I could around production and process design in hopes of getting to be a distillery engineer,” continues Caleb. “I learned from some amazing people who mentored me and helped me earn my start at Kentucky Peerless. I started as a grunt labourer and gradually took on more and more responsibility until I was eventually leading production. Even then I was apprehensive of earning the same title as my heroes.”

Caleb’s title went from distiller to head distiller, and he was eventually named master distiller shortly after Peerless was named the 2019 Craft Producer of the Year in the Icons of Whisky awards. He adds, “Even near the end of that journey, it never really hit me how close I was to living the dream that I never thought that I could reach. I am so blessed for Corky Taylor [CEO of Kentucky Peerless] to have believed in me and to have given me my shot.”

He enabled us to pursue quality above all else, regardless of cost or difficulty

Caleb Kilburn

When it comes to the average day at the office for a master distiller, well, there isn’t one. As Caleb notes, every day is a new adventure that offers up a range of tasks to tackle: “Distilling isn’t just about distilling. I get to fine-tune equipment, grade barrels, spend time with enthusiasts, come up with strategic plans, and so much more in between. Best of all, I get to do this alongside the amazingly talented team here at Peerless.”

Understanding how and why a person feels so at home in a role is immensely interesting, even more so when you consider how changeable those feelings are from person to person. For Caleb, it has been Corky Taylor’s vision of creating a whiskey worthy of the latter’s family legacy, and allowing the team to be ambitious with the liquid they set out to create. 

Caleb proudly explains, “He enabled us to pursue quality above all else, regardless of cost or difficulty.” 

Looking to the future, the master distiller reliably informs us that we need to keep an eye out for the next bottle, explaining that the Peerless team like to stay hyper-focused on taking one day at a time to ensure that everything being produced is something it is proud to share. 

As for the wider industry and what is capturing Caleb’s imagination, he has been particularly interested in whiskey consumer behavior and its rapid evolution. “The days of ignorant bliss and blind brand loyalty are coming to an abrupt close,” he concludes. “The modern whiskey drinker wants an experience to go along with their dram, paving the way for radical transparency to take over. They want to know every romantic detail about how and why a product is made, and I love where the industry is going.”  

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