MB Roland: Western Kentucky’s Smoky Bourbon OutpostBy Jake Emen
Pembroke, Kentucky is about 150 miles southwest from the real heart of bourbon country. It’s in a part of the state known more for tobacco than whiskey; a town that’s a literal time zone removed from the epicenter of bourbon production and tourism. And yet here you’ll find MB Roland Distillery which has managed to combine the region’s roots with the state’s spirit. At the same time, the distillery is also proving to be a veritable tourist attraction all on its own. In fact, the distillery pulls in about 50,000 visitors annually in a typical year.
Smoke Meet Bourbon
Western Kentucky is known for “dark fired” tobacco. For this reason, MB Roland takes that smoking process and deploys it to smoke the corn used for its signature Dark Fired Straight Bourbon. Corn kernels are laid out on rows of mesh trays lining a sealed-off shipping container from top to bottom. Smoking is performed with hardwoods as well as a combination of hickory and cherry. By the end of the week-long process, white corn has been transmogrified into a deep brown color. Meanwhile, each kernel is replete with a deep dose of smoky aromas.
MB Roland’s corn smoker /Photo Credit: Jake Emen
“The process is identical to tobacco smoking,” says Co-Founder and Distiller Paul Tomaszewski. The Louisiana native was stationed at nearby Fort Campbell where he met his future wife Merry Beth Roland. Together they opened the distillery named in her honor in 2009.
The tobacco smokehouse process is far from the only thing MB Roland does. However, it has since become a signature, and one which started after an initial experimental batch exceeded expectations. As a fan of smoky, peaty Scotch whisky, Tomaszewski wondered what would happen if he made a smoked whiskey with the local tobacco smoking method. “After trying the initial batch we said, hell yea, we gotta do this,” said Tomaszewski.
Highlighting the Region
Dark fire smoking the corn then became a unique story to add to the couple’s personal one. “When we started the distillery, we didn’t want to embellish or make up a story, or what I call ‘history hijacking,’ especially being an outsider coming here,” Tomaszewski says. “I’m a history guy and you kind of have to be, if you’re into whiskey. They run parallel to each other.” No hijacking was needed here then, as the smoking became an authentic part of the distillery as well as one which ties it innately to the area.
The MB Roland Distillery /Photo Credit: Jake Emen
It’s not just tobacco that’s traditionally grown in the region, though. “This is the bread basket of Kentucky out here,” Tomaszewski says. Corn, wheat and soybeans grow all around them. As a result, this allows the distillery to source much of its grain from within the immediate area and further capitalize on the unique locale. White corn happened to be what was available, and MB Roland has stuck with it from the start. Tomaszewski notes he feels the white corn provides a cake batter flavor to the whiskeys as they mature.
Elsewhere in production, Tomaszewski keeps his distillation strength low to preserve as much flavor as possible, and then never cuts or proofs his spirits. Barrel entry is at or around 110 proof, and the whiskeys are released at cask strength. “It’s all to let the grain and the barrel be the showcase,” he says. The distillery currently uses a roughly 50/50 split of full-size and 25-gallon barrels. Notably, there are plans to phase out the smaller ones as they continue progressing.
Beyond Dark Fired bourbon, MB Roland produces a diverse array of spirits, including a rendition of Dark Fired aged in used barrels as well as a standard non-smoked bourbon. Additionally the distillery makes rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, wheated bourbon, corn whiskey, malt whiskey and forthcoming single malt. In fact, there’s also a popular (and colorful) assortment of moonshines. The distillery even makes Kentucky Azul with imported 100% blue agave aged in its bourbon barrels.
When the distillery started operations in 2009, it used a mini 100-gallon still. By 2014 it had upgraded to a 600-gallon pot still system, relegating the smaller still to a position of prominence as an outdoor display piece. The brand is now ready to make another upgrade, with a new facility spearheaded by a 4,000-gallon pot still en route to increase production.
MB Roland also plans on expanding what it offers the guests who’ve managed to find the western Kentucky whiskey outpost. “Most of our visitors are like ‘this is great, I didn’t know there was a distillery out here in this part of Kentucky!'” Tomaszewski says. He estimates that only between 5-10% percent of the visitors are the typical Bourbon Trail tourists that buzz around Louisville, Bardstown and the rest of central Kentucky.
Therefore, MB Roland has some forthcoming tricks up its sleeve to pull even more folks out west, increasing its already lofty visitor tallies. “We think the next thing long-term in the industry is experiences,” Merry Beth says. Besides the current tasting room setup, and the pair of friendly dogs who serve as greeters, expect potential future additions such as an on-site restaurant, and maybe even accommodations to stay on property, too.
At the end of the day though, Dark Fired remains central to the distillery’s story. Oftentimes, the best experience for a whiskey drinker is the simplest one — the experience of trying something new and sampling an enjoyable and rewarding whiskey. “Dark Fired is the big unique-to-our-distillery thing,” Tomaszewski says. “If you want to copy it, good luck! It’s not easy.”
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