How Kentucky's Youngest Master Distiller Uses Tech to Make Better Bourbon

Caleb Kilburn helps the family-run Peerless Distillery uses IoT, cloud computing and other technologies to manage and automate business data and improve the spirit making process.

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory September 3, 2019

For Caleb Kilburn, distilling bourbon is problem solving at its best – turning grain into “one of the most beautiful products on Earth.” The master distiller at Louisville, Kentucky-based Peerless Distillery loves the taste and smell of a finely crafted bourbon, but his real passion lives deep in the process – from fermenting and steaming mash to aging the spirit just right in hand-charred barrels.

Precision is key, so the distilling process is painstakingly meticulous. That’s exactly why Kilburn balances time-honored traditions with ambition for innovation to create distinct bourbon. He blends cherished recipes and distilling methods and turns to technologies he can tinker with to automate the process. It’s this mix, along with his charm and good-natured humbleness that led the 27-year-old to be named the youngest Master Distiller in Kentucky.

Growing up, he worked days and nights on his parents’ local dairy farm. It taught him devotion to hard work and how to strive for perfection. He remembers being fascinated about spirit making from early on.

“I wanted to be a master distiller more than anything,” said Kilburn. “It was a lot of hard work to get here, not just on my own behalf, but from so many people who put the effort, trust, time and faith into me. That included my industry heroes who taught me the craft and those who entrusted me with the opportunity here at Peerless.”

A state known as the birthplace of bourbon, Kentucky distills over 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, which Congress named America’s Native Spirit. Over the last decade, the number of distilleries in Kentucky has grown to 68, a 250 percent increase. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association reports that the volume of the state’s famed bourbon is at its highest amount since 1972. The growth is expected to continue – Grand View Market Research predicts global whiskey sales, which includes bourbon, will rise 6.4 percent between 2019 and 2025.

Kilburn and his Peerless team use Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to measure processes and rely on cloud computing to manage data for distillation, customer service and supply chain management. Through technology and strategic partnerships, Peerless recently grew from serving 21 states to being available in 45 states.

Freeing Distillers to Focus on Craft

Kilburn is passionate about adding technologies to the distilling process, especially for steps that require repetitive precision or to free people from mundane tasks.

“We can instead focus on the taste and flavor by consistently improving the final product,” he said. “Some days it’s something as simple as moving grains slightly differently, while other days it may be more complex – like actually tuning the control loops on the distillation column.”

Kilburn installed sensors all around the distillery – on pots, stoves and pouts – to collect data. That info is analyzed using a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), a small computer connected to all the sensors. Kilburn said the sensors give a clearer, measurable view into the many steps required to make bourbon.

Employees receive notifications about potential issues so they can prevent problems, from potential batch heating and cooling issues to preventing a fire. Because security is a top concern, Kilburn went with a closed system – it has no Internet access or connection to the outside world.

Technology allows Kilburn to offer different types of whiskey. While sour mash has been the traditional industry standard, the PLC system enabled Peerless to use new innovative techniques, becoming one of only two distilleries in Kentucky to offer a sweet mash product at a large scale.

“I tell everyone – other distillers and people in the whiskey industry – not to be intimidated by technology,” he said.

He has no formal degree in computers or electrical engineering, but took a few courses, asked a lot of questions and was able to learn everything needed to build his IoT system.

“I’m still learning every day.”

Honing Business Practices to Stay Competitive

Peerless also uses tech to save time and money for the business. The distillery must keep meticulous records for tax and legal purposes – where every type of grain goes, gallons of alcohol produced, where it is barreled, and how much is lost during barreling.

Even more information must be tracked for supply chain and logistics to ensure the distillery gets all the materials they need and that the bottles get to the right customer, no matter where they’re located. However, Peerless goes well beyond the requirements with data collection – keeping detailed data on conditions of distilling to ensure a quality product with each batch.

“Because everything is backed up in real-time on the cloud, we can access everything anytime we need it and from any device,” said Kilburn. “And if there was ever a disaster or computer issue, we can get our information.”

While tech has helped create a better bourbon-making process, there is one secret ingredient it can’t replace ­– community. Before joining Peerless, Kilburn assumed the industry would be closed-off and competitive. Instead, he found a supportive community.

“Everyone is willing to help each other,” he said. “The community is one of the biggest reasons that bourbon has led the charge and rise of spirits.”

He knows that the secret to meeting the world’s growing desire for bourbon lies in finding the right blend of time-honored tradition and new technologies. That’s how Kilburn takes his craft fearlessly into the future.

Jennifer Goforth Gregory is a contributing writer. Finder her on Twitter @byJenGregory.

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