If you are a visitor to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and don’t know Whiskey Thief Distilling, you are behind the curve.
Well, maybe you know it by its former name: Three Boys Distillery. That’s a reasonable excuse as the name was just changed in October of 2022. Otherwise, the time for you to get caught up on what Whiskey Thief is all about is now.
It wasn’t too many years ago – back in the “Three Boys days” – the distillery was the best-kept secret in Kentucky whiskey. There wasn’t an ever-present big crowd of tourists and you could enjoy tasting direct-from-the-barrel samples at your uncrowded leisure. Now…not so much. For good reason, the place is regularly packed with tour groups, bachelor parties, and run-of-the-mill bourbon fans. While it is surely a more popular experience these days, the staff at Whiskey Thief caters to and manages the crowd with relative ease and ensures everybody has a great experience on their visit.
Throughout the Three Boys era, the distillery made slow but steady improvements to both the distillery itself and to the visitor experience. After Walter Zausch became the owner and president, those improvements have increased in both scope and timing. A second tasting area has been added, a new rick house is on the way and a second still has been installed that will be primarily used for gin and other small-production runs.
The man behind virtually every bottle of whiskey produced under either distillery name is Hunter Coffey. Hunter is largely self-taught, but possesses a unique breadth of distilling capabilities. Whiskey Thief, and Three Boys before it, is a major contract distillery. As such, Hunter has made whiskey from hundreds of different mashbills in his career, giving him a diversity of experience that most distillers will never know. In my opinion, Hunter is one of the most talented and yet unassuming distillers in the industry. If you’ve visited Whiskey Thief, Hunter has likely anonymously walked right past you in a mash-stained t-shirt as you sampled whiskeys he made that you are falling in love with. As a frequent buyer and taster of his whiskeys, I can honestly say I’ve never had anything he has made that I didn’t think was outstanding.
I already mentioned the new still. There is also a new distiller that Walter and Hunter brought in to run it and that is Kelley Tennille. Kelley was previously a distiller for Hartfield & Co. in Paris, Kentucky and is the most recent winner of the Moonshiners Master Distiller competition on the Discovery channel. Kelley is a resourceful and imaginative distiller and is undertaking the development of a new gin product at Whiskey Thief. I was fortunate enough to sample a sneak peak of some of the gin and it is very thoughtfully made with more emphasis on floral and citrus botanicals than on juniper.
Walter and Hunter were on an episode of Bourbon Turntable late last year. If you missed it, you can catch up on that here. On the show it was clear that Walter has a vision for Whiskey Thief and he justifiably believes in Hunter to lead the distilling team as part of that vision. With the addition of a talented distiller like Kelley and the other improvements being made, the successes for Whiskey Thief will continue to stack up like barrels in that new rick house.
On a recent visit to Whiskey Thief, I tried a rye that was in the sampling barrels – there are five barrels set out in each tasting area where guests can sample straight from the barrel and even thief their own bottle. I had not had much rye whiskeys made by Hunter so I was excited to check it out. Here’s my quick review:
WHISKEY THIEF RYE
Mash bill: 60% rye, 35% malted rye 5% malted barley
Proof: 114 proof (straight from the barrel)
Age: 5 year
Nose: Black tea, mint, cedar, lemon zest, hint of chocolate
Taste: Leather, mint, black tea, pepper, dark caramel, buttery texture and an effervescence (likely from the malted grain)
Finish: Leather, pepper, black tea
Overall: I am always eager to try a whiskey with a high malted rye content. It seems to produce some unique and delicious whiskeys in the right hands, and it was certainly in the right hands with Hunter. This is a fantastic rye that carries its proof well – it is powerful, but is not an alcohol punch in the face. It is a wonderful sipper that I’ll go to often.
Make plans to visit Whiskey Thief and see (and taste) for yourself the wonderful work going on there. If you’ve been before, go again. Walter and Hunter will certainly have something new for you to experience. If nothing else, enjoy again the best distillery tasting experience in Kentucky.