It recently occurred to me that I’ve yet to write about my last visit to Kentucky – well, Kentucky and Indiana. Along with selecting two incredible barrels at Wild Turkey (more on that in a future installment), not to mention an epic Patreon meetup at Neat in Louisville, I had the pleasure of returning to Starlight Distillery.
Those familiar with this blog might recall my October 2021 piece, “Illuminated by Starlight.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, as the post touches on the history of the seventh-generation farm and key details of the Huber family’s wine and spirits operation. For this post, I’ll be focusing on this year’s private selection process and the whiskeys that made the cut.
From Grape to Grain
I arrived at Starlight on a breezy September morning. Autumn was in the air, and the grounds were lined with carts of pumpkins and ornamental corn. After a few minutes of introductions and small talk among the selection party, we headed into Starlight’s bar to warm up our palates with a distillery-exclusive single-barrel bourbon. Wow. Talk about setting a high bar! The viscosity and complexity was impressive. Dare I say it was the best Starlight bourbon I’d ever tasted? I’m sure of it.
We finished our glasses then headed out with Andrew Jerdonek, Starlight’s Spirits Program Director, for a tour of the winery and distillery. Similar to my first visit, we began in the cellar, with its rows of casks ranging in makes and sizes. It’s a quiet room, almost nursery-like, as if the wines are sleeping. Exiting the wine cellar, we observed the grape harvest being prepped for juicing, starting with the removal of stems and leaves. And there on the de-stemming line stood Blake Huber, one of Starlight’s three master distillers. No one is above hard work at Starlight, especially a Huber.
Seeing the juicer at work made me thirsty, so when the straight-from-the-still brandy made its way around, I couldn’t say no. As you might imagine, it packed one helluva punch. Even so, the new-make was dangerously easy to sip, considering its youth and hefty ABV. Pleased with the distillate, I was determined to try some of their aged brandies (I would have that chance later that afternoon).
With the grape side of our tour behind us, we moved on to the grain. First stop, the newly constructed and fully operational bottling hall. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride for the Hubers and employees of Starlight. To see their operation grow so quickly in a mere handful of years was inspiring. From there, we walked to the stillhouse where Andrew gave us a quick A to Z of Starlight distillery. Needless to say, it gets a little warm standing next to a still (not to mention I was itching to pick some barrels). So when Andrew asked if we were ready to head to warehouse 2, it was an instant yes from me.
Straight to the Finish
While Starlight’s warehouses are considerably different from Wild Turkey’s century-old structures, they house their own kind of magic. Warehouse 2 is a single-story metal construction housing barrels of various cooperage on steel racks stacked 4-5 tiers high. While that may sound somewhat industrial compared to traditional wood/clad warehouses, there’s an energy to it. You can feel the passion the Hubers put into each and every barrel, many of which contain one-of-a-kind blends and experimental finishes.
We grabbed our glasses and went to work. One by one, Andrew popped bungs on barrels aging Starlight’s straight bourbon. Though quality whiskeys, none quite hit at the level of the single barrel we tasted back at the bar, so we moved to straight rye barrels. Like the bourbon, the rye was quality with one in particular catching our attention. We debated on securing it, but decided to try some finished whiskeys first.
We tasted through a diverse range of finishes – Applejack brandy, white port, and more – but once we hit the sherry casks (Oloroso and PX), I knew we’d found our first selection. We decided on a 4.5-year bourbon finished in an Oloroso sherry cask for eight months. With notes of chocolate almond, raisins, dried plum, and leather, it was precisely what I was looking for – a complex whiskey one could enjoy neat or paired with a premium cigar.
Next, we ventured into rum finishes. We tried both Jamaican and Venezuelan rum finishes, but the Venezuelan cask (an ex-Weller barrel that aged rum for nine years) seemed to work best with Starlight’s 4-year bourbon. We bounced between the two casks several times (for science, of course), but the general consensus favored the ex-Weller rum cask. And just like that, we had our second selection – a syrupy dessert-like whiskey for any occasion or application – neat, rocks, blends, etc.
Just as we reached the end of our day sampling barrels, Andrew mentioned he had two whiskeys left for us to try – a bourbon and a rye finished in Madeira wine casks. Madeira finishes aren’t commonly found among Starlight’s offerings. In fact, Andrew informed us that if we selected the Madeira rye cask, we’d have to split it with Starlight Distillery, who planned on releasing it as a distillery exclusive. After tasting the whiskeys, we could easily tell why. The Madeira influence on Starlight’s rye was exceptionally unique, showcasing notes of tart jam, cranberry sauce, and pecan divinity. A genuine rarity in profile and a no-brainer final selection for our team.
Until Next Time
After a memorable day evaluating whiskey, we had the pleasure of sitting down for a carefree meal as a group of friends. Starlight’s pizza was fantastic as always, and we had the bonus of dining outdoors under a newly constructed gazebo. We tried those brandy expressions I’d been craving earlier in the tour, as well as some estate wine. It was a fitting end to our eventful day, though we did stop by the boardroom afterwards to re-taste our selections, as well as the gift shop to grab a few bottles. And how could I forget? Ice cream! Damn, if Starlight doesn’t have the best ice cream.
In closing, I’d like to offer my sincerest thanks to Russell’s Renegades’ talented selection team: Alan, Andrew C., Brent, David, Mark, Angie, Micheal, Breanne, and last but certainly not least, Ryan Alves of Justins’ House of Bourbon, who sponsored our selections. I’d also like to thank Andrew Jerdonek and the Huber family for their professionalism and impeccable hospitality. Once again, another amazing trip to Starlight Distillery. The next one can’t come soon enough.
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