Meet Eric Downs, Limestone Branch Lead Distiller
As lead distiller under master distiller Stephen Beam, Eric Downs heads up a staff of five that keeps the Limestone Branch Distillery stills running seven days a week, 24 hours a day, in two 12-hour shifts.
In his spare time, he likes to throw in a little fishing and some quality time with his family. Despite his busy schedule, though, we managed to catch him during a break for a few quick questions.
You’ve been with Limestone Branch Distillery for close to four years now, but you stepped into distilling a bit reluctantly, didn’t you?
I was born and raised in Loretto, Kentucky, right near Maker’s Mark, and my mom, dad, brother, aunts, and uncles were all involved in distilling, mainly in Bardstown. Many days my dad would come home dead tired, and I thought that’s the job I’m never going to do.
And yet … ?
I worked for Toyota for nine years making brake linings and engine parts here in Lebanon. But I had to stop when I tore my rotator cuff. I drove by the distillery one day and saw a sign that said, “Taking applications.” So, I thought I’d try it for a week or two. After about a week, I knew that this is something that gets in your blood.
What’s the main appeal?
I think what I really love about it is that it’s basically a simple thing that we’re doing. But by putting into it as much heart and art that you can — by making sure your grains are at the exact right temperature, held perfectly, that your yeast is propagated in the correct way, everything that goes into distilling — this essentially simple thing turns into a really complex and beautiful thing. Something that maybe someone on the other side of the world gets to enjoy in six years or however long it takes the product to make it their way.
Since you’re from the area, you were certainly familiar with the name Beam. Was that a little intimidating at first?
You know, I don’t think I was smart enough at first to be intimidated. That came later! [Laughs.] No, when I started, I was just so intrigued and so taken over by it all, it didn’t dawn on me to be intimidated. I was a bit of a blank slate, with no preconceived ways, so Steve was able to take me through all the steps of the way he wants it done.
You work on the distillery’s bourbons and the new Bowling & Burch gin. Does one inform the other?
No. They are in completely different worlds. Very little crosses paths. Gin is in some ways more complicated, depending on where your botanicals came from, how long they’ve been stored on site. With our wild botanicals grown here on the property, we have to be cognizant how the rain went the previous year. If it’s a dry year, the plants can be more concentrated with flavor.
When you’re making bourbon, you pretty much know where you are all along the process — the flavor is always very evident. With gin, the botanicals line up more individually, the flavors revealing themselves one after the other, so that makes it a little trickier.
What do you recommend to visitors to the area, and what are some are your favorite things to do?
I always recommend — especially if you’re traveling to do a distillery tour — to go to some heritage distillery like Maker’s Mark, and a barrel factory; there’s a cooperage right here in town. But also, try to make it to a craft distillery like ours. That way, you can see and appreciate both large and small-scale approaches.
Personally, I really enjoy fishing, and I like playing guitar, which I do only well enough to impress my wife. She sometimes says I spend more time here at the distillery than at home, but my time at home, with our two children, is also very important to me.
And after starting here and learning to appreciate bourbons under the tutelage of Steve Beam and our bourbon steward, Stephen Fante, I love to go out and try different types of bourbon using the tasting techniques I’ve learned from them.
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It’s only natural to feel a little peckish when sipping a gin cocktail — the spirit’s botanical ingredients complement all manner of munchies, from dainty appetizers to hearty entrees.