Sometimes the less predictable choice is the one that gives you joy in a career path. and Ellie Reed of Kentucky Peerless Distilling is a primary example of that. Ellie’s love of boubon and distilling had a lot of do with being raised in the heart of Bourbon Country, but her knowledge of it came out of hard work at the J.B. Speed School at University of Louisville.  Our favorite quote: “The industry is rooted in tradition, and I believe we need to slow down, enjoy the process, and value the aspect of time. Time is the most important part of whiskey making, time in the barrel, time to master the craft, and time spent together.” We couldn’t agree more.

BW: When and how did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon/whiskey/spirits industry?

ER: I was born and raised in Louisville, KY and have always been fascinated with the distilled spirits industry in Kentucky, which I believe I gained this interest from my grandfather. My grandfather always ended the night with a highball and bourbon was always viewed as our Kentucky culture and a way to enjoy time together. Also, in high school, I took a STEM path and was influenced to pursue engineering by some strong women engineers who provided guidance throughout my high school career. Overall, my family are the ones who supported me throughout my educational and professional career journey.

BW: How did you end up working in the industry?

ER: I never imagined I would actually be lucky enough to be in the industry, but I knew I wanted to give it a shot. I went to school at J.B. Speed School at The University of Louisville and received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. I moved away from the idea of being in the distilled spirits industry for a while and focused on what I believed to be more practical industries such as pharmaceuticals and sanitation chemicals for metals and food/beverage. Nearing the end of my bachelor’s degree, I decided to try to put my foot in the door at a distillery and that is how I ended up as a tour guide at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company. I wanted to join Kentucky Peerless because it is one of the last remaining craft and family-owned distilleries in Kentucky, and that speaks volumes about their craft and their love of the industry. During my time as a tour guide, I also would help out in production in between classes at the university. I fell in love with production and was mentored by some of the most knowledgeable distillers. I was beyond excited when I was offered to join the production team as a distiller.

BW: What was your previous background – and how do you use your background in distilling today? How did your background prepare you for your position in the industry today?

ER: My background is in chemical engineering. My engineering career path has allowed me to better understand the chemical makeup of our mash bills, how to run our machines, perform maintenance on our equipment, and develop methods to optimize production. I am able to use my background to build on the science portion of our industry, but the industry is allowing me to play around with the art of whiskey making.

BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at Peerless?

ER: The most surprising thing I learned from starting at the distillery was how to compartmentalize and switch from task-to-task. Starting out, I was a tour guide, and it was sometimes hard to switch off my science brain and focus on the hospitality side of the industry. I really had to put aside my fear of public speaking and practice interacting with all types of people, which was a learning curve. Now that I am in more of a production role, I am learning to compartmentalize which allows me to jump around between still operations, equipment maintenance, process development, and more labor-intensive tasks.

BW: What does your day-to-day life in the distillery/organization look like?

ER: The thing I love the most about the distilled spirits industry is that you never know what each day will bring. One day I will be distilling, filling barrels, and sizing parts for tanks and the next, I will be interacting with the whiskey community and meeting people from all over the world. There are not many industries that allow you to establish your craft by experimenting and designing new processes to help with continuous improvement.

BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards?  What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?

ER: The bourbon industry has experienced major growth in the last decade and people are always looking for the next big thing. What will be the next finish to be released? Will there be a 10 year, 15 year, 20 year product? The industry is rooted in tradition, and I believe we need to slow down, enjoy the process, and value the aspect of time. Time is the most important part of whiskey making, time in the barrel, time to master the craft, and time spent together. I would like to see more focus being brought to small batches and single barrel curations and less on finishes and rapid aging of whiskey. My biggest hope for the industry is to always look towards the future but live in the moment.

BW: What’s something in your role that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?

ER: Overall, I believe what gets me going in the morning is my passion for bourbon in Kentucky and sharing that with people. I love meeting new people, continuously learning, and developing new techniques that will help us produce high-quality whiskey.

BW: What advice do you have for women who want to step into a similar role or carve a similar path?

ER: My advice for any woman looking to join the whiskey world is don’t be scared to take risks. Starting out, I did not believe I would be in the industry and that my time at the distillery would end in retail. Out of school, I was preparing to accept another job offer prior to receiving my offer from Kentucky Peerless. I had a hard time deciding between the offers because I pressured myself to take what I believed was the more practical career path; but in the end, I wanted a career that didn’t feel like a job and a place where I wanted to go day in and day out, and that was Kentucky Peerless for me! I still have a long way to go, but I am really proud of where I am in life right now and I look forward to seeing more women carve paths in the industry!

BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in your state/city:

ER: The perfect whiskey weekend in Louisville, Kentucky is Derby weekend and our summer music festivals, Bourbon and Beyond and Louder than Life. Bourbon and our whiskey community coming together in one place, what’s not to love?

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