Rock Town Distillery bottles new product line

Julie Cumberland applies wax caps on the top of bottles as she helps bottle a single barrel cask strength bourbon at Rock Town Distillery on Thursday, April 13, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Made from Arkansas ingredients and from an Arkansas recipe, distilled in Kentucky but brought back to Little Rock to age, Rock Town Distillery has produced a new bourbon line -- The Column Still Collection.

Rock Town has been producing bourbon for years, but this effort through Kentucky-based Bardstown Bourbon Company's Collaborative Distilling Program allows for a significant production run -- more than the Arkansas distillery could make in years on its own.

"We kept selling out," founder and head distiller Phil Brandon said of Rock Town's earlier bourbon offerings.

He explained in March 2020, armed with an Arkansas recipe for bourbon and nine tons of Arkansas corn and wheat, the folks at Rock Town worked at Bardstown Bourbon in central Kentucky, to produce Rock Town's latest bourbon offerings.

Brandon said using Bardstown's column stills, they produced the white dog -- the un-aged whisky -- that was then cut to 110 proof before being barreled. The barrels, made in Arkansas and Kentucky, were then aged at Rock Town's warehouse in downtown Little Rock.

"In nine days of work we were able to make as much as we we make in two years here," Brandon said. "It's a different scale."

The collection features a toasted French oak barrel finished straight bourbon whiskey; a small batch straight bourbon whiskey; and a single barrel cask strength straight bourbon whiskey. The new bourbons can be found in liquor stores throughout Arkansas, outlets in Oklahoma, Illinois, Georgia, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C. and New York, and are available online for delivery to most states.

According to IBIS World Whiskey and Bourbon Distilleries report, the industry is expected to see $5.7 billion in revenue in 2023, with an average increase in annual revenue of 4.4% over the last five years. Revenue is expected to slow in the next five years to an average yearly increase of 1.2% to a total annual revenue figure $6 billion by 2028.

Kentucky produces 95% of the world's bourbon, according to the trade group Kentucky Distillers Association.

In Arkansas, there are 13 active liquor manufacturing/distilling permits, in addition there is one permit with conditional approval, one in the application process and three inactive, according to information provided by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

Nick Smith, director of distillation and head distiller at Bardstown Bourbon said its Collaborative Distilling Program is a significant part of its business, resulting in three expansions to meet demand. He said the program is part of the company's core philosophy of collaboration and transparency. He noted it allows smaller distillers to increase their volume, and produce their own custom bourbon, without investing in extensive infrastructure or high labor costs.

"This completely unique and inclusive process allows our customers to create alongside us, providing both an education component and the capacity for true innovation," Smith said in response to emailed questions.

He said the program provides transparency in how bourbon is sourced, something that's sometimes lacking in the industry.

"We ran the same process and used all raw materials that Rock Town Distillery implements daily," Smith said. "The Rock Town team were here for every step of production. When we make a customer's product, we are their home, they are welcome to come work with us and view production."

Rock Town's Brandon echoed those sentiments.

"We wanted to stay true to our Arkansas roots," he said. "We're makers, not fakers."

  photo  Matthew Gill, Assistant distiller, pours out a barrel of bourbon as the distillery bottles a run of single barrel cask strength bourbon at Rock Town Distillery on Thursday, April 13, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)