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A Bottle of Missouri History

Holladay Distillery honors local and personal history with its Ben Holladay Bourbon

One question has plagued master distiller Kyle Merklein for the last six years — “Is the bourbon ready yet?”

But, indeed, the bourbon is now ready — Holladay Distillery’s Ben Holladay Missouri Straight Bourbon Whiskey. After six years, Holladay is finally making bourbon again, 126 years after Ben Holladay himself made the first batch on the property and over 35 years since bourbon was made there last. 

This is Kyle’s first bourbon release, and he’s had a lot of sleepless nights the last few years over it — worrying about every detail of the process to get the bourbon out of the barrel and into the bottle. 

“Each new step — thinking through it and then losing sleep over it and then actually getting through it and making it through perfectly fine and I didn’t have to lose sleep – it’s just part of it,” says Kyle. “You wait for six years — there’s so much pressure.”

With a background in engineering from Kansas State, Kyle never intended to be the spokesperson for a bottle of bourbon. While he currently lives in nearby Atchison, his wife’s hometown, Kyle is from Phillipsburg, Kansas, a historic German town. He actually grew up with a German accent, which was picked up from his grandparents, who spoke German. He worked hard to hide his accent, admitting he has always felt a little self-conscious about public speaking because of that. It’s clear he shies away from the limelight, but it’s an endearing quality. 

“You don’t expect to be posted by a brand on social media when you’re in engineering school, says Kyle. “It’s all good and it’s part of the game and it’s fun.”

While Kyle helped lead the modern Ben Holladay Bourbon to bottle, the journey to the release has had many hands in it over the distillery’s history. The original owner, Ben Holladay, purchased the land in 1849, knowing from his upbringing in Kentucky that the limestone spring on the property would be optimal for bourbon. The new Ben Holladay Bourbon actually uses the original mash bill, or recipe, from the first bourbon that was made here under the name Blue Springs Distillery. 

“We’ve distilled to the same proofs that we used to, we use the same mash bill, we use a very similar cooking style — pretty much recreating as much as we possibly could because we knew it was a good product,” says Kyle. “We have a dwindling reserve of bottles from 30+ years ago and the goal I think has always been to hit that target profile and to recreate the bourbon as close as we possibly could.”

While the mash bill is the same as it was in the 19th century, the technology, of course, has changed even since the last bourbon was bottled on this site in the 1980s. Having access to newer technology gives Kyle an immense appreciation for those who made it before him.

“We have so much more technology today than there was 30, 40, 50, 150 years ago,” says Kyle. “All the tools that I’m using pretty much didn’t exist. You really have perspective on how everything in the bourbon world was even done to begin with, even just the steps of bottling it.”

That’s the most important aspect to Kyle — honoring history without messing too much with a recipe that has stood the test of time. Holladay’s bourbon will be bottled in bond, meaning every step of the bourbon process — the cooking, distillation, and aging — all happened at the same facility and is all the product of a single distillation season.

“Every step that we do is respecting bourbon history, bourbon heritage, as well as our own history and our own heritage,” says Kyle. “And that’s huge. If you just think back on the history of our facility alone, there’s a lot of people making bourbon here and we just want to respect that process.”

Ben Holladay Bourbon will be made in small batches. Because each release will be the product of a different distillation season, it may be variability from batch to batch. Each bottle will list the blend of what floor the barrel was stored in the rickhouse (a warehouse for whiskey barrels). Holladay is embracing this variability — like a winemaker embraces a vintage — and hopes its bourbon drinkers will do the same. 

Of course, Kyle is a bourbon drinker himself — surely, a prerequisite for the job of master distiller.

“I have probably too many types of bourbon in my house,” says Kyle. “My wife has always asked me if I really need that bottle or not. Thankfully, I guess it’s paid off.”

Kyle will soon have his own bourbon to add to his bar shelf. It seems to have paid off, indeed. 

You can find Ben Holladay Bourbon at your local liquor store, or you can also help celebrate the bourbon release during the Weston street dance on June 11 from 6-9 p.m., which will feature live music and bourbon cocktails.