Photos by Jamie Alexander
It has been said that tradition can be both a link to the past and a bridge to the future. This adage holds true concerning the property at 10 Distillery Road and its rich history with distilled spirits. It has been 135 years since John W. McCulloch founded Green River Distilling Company near the riverfront of north Owensboro. Despite a devastating fire, prohibition, and multiple owners, the distillery has survived, and has now returned to the name of its origin.
“It’s something that’s been part of the plan from the beginning,” said Green River Spirits Manager of Visitor Experience, Nicole Ebelhar. “It took a few years and a little negotiating to get everything worked out.”
The distillery was purchased in 2014 by Terressentia Corporation. Since 2016, it has run under the name O.Z. Tyler Distillery, named after Orville Zelotes Tyler III, the co-inventor of the TerrePURE process. This process allowed the distillery to rapidly mature its product and get it to market quicker; however, the rest of the process remained traditional.
“Everything we have done from the beginning has always been the traditional process—getting the grain, grinding the grain, distillation, and putting it in the barrel to age,” said Ebelhar. “Being a new distillery, we did not have old enough product for the market, so we used TerrePURE to get it out on the market faster. The Green River Spirit will be aged a minimum of four years in the traditional way.”
Now that the distillery has been in operation for four years, enough time for barrel aging, Ebelhar anticipates being able to launch bourbon whiskey product under the Green River Distilling Company label during the first quarter of 2021.
The name and the aging process are not the only traditions at Green River Distilling Company. During its official launch to the public on September 15, 2020, Green River unveiled a series of hand-painted murals and signage revealing the distillery’s reclaimed name. Local artist and founder of Kizer Construction, Aaron Kizer, was commissioned to create the new signage, as well as signature murals on multiple rick houses.
“They reached out to me because they wanted this to be very Owensboro and Kentucky-oriented,” Kizer said. “They are really proud of the fact that they are in Owensboro, and wanted something unique to here.”
Kizer said the overall intention was to make it appear as if the distillery had never actually shut down, but simply aged over time. In order to accomplish this task, Kizer said he pored over photos of old memorabilia in order to capture the essence of the brand.
“I literally sat down at a desk and tried to find a way to modernize it just enough, but also keep it with the original Green River branding and Green River look,” Kizer said. “It wasn’t like the whole thing needed to be changed; it just needed to be refreshed.”
The black and white front welcome sign, which still sits on its original platform, was refaced to display more modern three-dimensional (3-D) lettering, along with a horseshoe shape reminiscent of that on the original Green River packaging. A similar black design is painted on the white brick inside of the event center.
The horseshoe can also be seen shadowed in the back of a hand-painted mural on Rickhouse D. The mural, which reads, “Green River, the whiskey without regrets,” pays homage to the original Green River slogan, “The whiskey without a headache.” Kizer said this mural required detailed planning in order to work around the constraints of the windows, as well the assistance of scaffolding in order to reach the expanse of the 4-story rickhouse.
The first rickhouse that visitors see upon arriving now bears the letter and number combination DSP KY10. This number represents Green River’s distillery license number as the 10th distillery in Kentucky.
“It’s a very low number and signifies it as one of the earlier distilleries,” Kizer said. “It’s cool because you don’t initially know why it’s there, but we wanted the building to look stamped. It’s also a conversation piece; it allows people to ask questions about the history from the start of the tour.”
According to Ebelhar, Green River plans to offer a variety of experiences in 2021, in addition to the current distillery tour and sit and sip experience. The distillery also plans to open a brand salon that will showcase memorabilia dating back to its 1885 origin. Ebelhar said the team has searched the country looking for these one-of-a-kind whiskey finds. Overall, Ebelhar said she and the Green River team are excited about the future of the brand.
“So far we’ve had great feedback, and we as employees are very proud of it,” Ebelhar said. “It’s been great to work for O.Z. Tyler, and then help revitalize this brand.
It’s something to be proud of and Owensboro is proud of…It’s the same people—different name—we just brought back history to Owensboro.”