About the Marvelous Legendary Amazing Kentucky Limestone Springwater
Since forever, Kentucky’s whiskey producers have been touting the limestone water of the state as critical to their process. Today we know that isn’t quite the case, when so many of them use a water supply from a municipality or a river, which can hardly be called “limestone water.” The truth is, you simply need good, clean water with no excess iron or sulfur to make good whiskey. And in fact, that’s all they ever did back on Kentucky’s early farm distilleries…
When a person goes to begin a farm, the first thing she looks for is a good source of water. And that water, which would supply the farmer’s livestock and family and crops, and quite possibly also provide the power to run a grain mill, would need to be plentiful, consistent, and clean, with no off flavors from a surfeit of iron or sulfur or other undesirable elements. A 1790s settler or homesteader looking for a place to put down roots in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region would have been very impressed indeed with the richness of groundwater in the state. Unlike some states, Kentucky is absolutely riven with streams and springs and branches. The underlying geology of much of the state is dominated by karst limestone formations. Truly, all those early distillers ran on a genuine limestone spring. Sometimes you can still find the stone remains of an old distillery next to a stream, such as the original 1820s site of Old Joe Distillery, on Gilbert’s Creek in Anderson County; or the present day structures of a millrace, a stone structure diverting water from a spring or stream into a mill, such as at Maker’s Mark.
Dr. Alan Fryar, UK water scientist, had this to say in a paper entitled “Springs and the Origins of Bourbon”:
The main advantage of ‘‘limestone water’’ is its lack of iron (Kentucky Distillers’ Association 2008), ‘‘which would make whiskey bitter and black’’ (Allen 1998, p. 87). Dissolved CaCO3 may also promote fermentation (Carson 1984; Murray 1998; Pacult 2003) by maintaining an elevated pH, which favors the growth of Bacillus delbrücki , a bacterium that produces lactic acid in yeast mashes (Willkie and Prochaska 1943).
Fryar later cites, “the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (2008) has stated that ‘‘Kentucky spring water. . . is perfect for bourbon distilling because it is free of minerals that affect taste.” Clearly “limestone water” simply means “good water, without iron or sulfur.” There is otherwise nothing magical about it (aside from possibly providing an extra-friendly home for lactic acid bacteria, an important co-factor in a whiskey fermentation).
And indeed, today’s big Kentucky distillers, powered by city water supplies or rushing rivers, make perfectly good whiskey with rather ordinary water. But it’s not “limestone,” it’s not a “spring” and it certainly is at odds with the imagery so often put forth by these firms—a pastoral pool…shining in the moonlight…it’s gathered by virgins with pearl bowls and turns into Bourbon whiskey! The truth is far less romantic. Our proud little well at New Riff, all 500 gallons per minute, is similarly plain: it’s the square manhole in the parking lot. But it’s ours, and it’s unique, and, so far anyway, it is making a singular whiskey.
Directly beneath New Riff Distilling, under the land that Ken Lewis has owned since 1992, lies an aquifer. It’s called the Ohio River Alluvial Aquifer. Learn how this great water supply makes great bourbon!