Not unlike cheap beer and expensive watches, the bourbon business was built on consistency. To fill a typical bottle, the liquid from barrels stacked in rickhouses squatting throughout the Kentucky and Indiana foothills is dumped and mixed by master blenders until it matches the distillery’s desired flavor profile. That’s why Jim Beam tastes like Jim Beam, no matter when or where you buy it.
This liquid is, by law, made mostly from corn. The other flavoring grains are typically barley, wheat or rye. Like spice? Go with Wild Turkey. Want it sweeter? Maker’s Mark. Among large heritage brands such as Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace, differences are sometimes subtle and variety is relatively limited. At the right bar, you can make quick work of a distillery’s entire portfolio.
Contrast that with the wealth of options in beer and wine and it’s clear why the most celebrated bourbon bottles — the unique and interesting “limited edition” releases — are so precious. These annual treasures are allocated and tucked away and sold at outrageous prices and then resold on the secondary market. But rarely, it would seem, opened.
In this world of similar-tasting brown liquor, Hidden Barn Whiskey, one of America’s newest bourbon brands, is breaking tradition. Formed by brand ambassador Nate Winegar, finance and operations lead Matt Dankner, master distiller Royce Neeley and master blender Jackie Zykan, Hidden Barn is taking an unprecedented approach not only to launching a distillery but also to producing the whiskey itself.
Having gone to Kentucky to see the operation, hang with the pros and sip some of that whiskey, I now feel qualified to tell their tale. If it doesn’t make you want to pop a cork, I’m doing something wrong.
As the former master taster at Old Forester, Zykan is easily the best known of the bunch — and a force in the whiskey world. She’s earned a reputation for bringing, in her words, a “fresh perspective, a different way of connecting with people about whiskey — in which it wasn’t always golf shirts, khaki pants and PowerPoints. It was more human. It was more real.”
"Jackie is a disruptor, a game changer,” says Fred Minnick, a World Whiskies Awards judge and former lead American whiskey reviewer for Whiskey Advocate. “She has an amazing palate. She has incredible blending techniques and she was, frankly, trained at arguably the best whiskey company in America.”
But before Zykan can blend in her own inimitable way, that whiskey must exist. So let’s start with Neeley — and a distilling process that’s arguably just as unique.
For the past seven years, as master distiller of Neeley Family Distillery in tiny Sparta, Kentucky, Neeley has been experimenting with the old ways: sweet mash instead of sour, copper pot distillation instead of column distillation and long fermentation times in cypress tanks instead of stainless steel. Most defiantly of all, he’s been forgoing predictable lab-grown yeast in favor of hand-collecting wild yeast himself — a process all but abandoned by commercial distillers. He does it all to make the old new again. To bring flavors to bourbon that you can’t find anywhere else.
“It's harder to make whiskey like that,” Neeley says. “But I always believe if you go taste old dusty bottles and you hear the legends of pre-Prohibition whiskey, you can taste how good it was.”
So once a year, he hikes into the Kentucky mountains with three steel buckets, on the hunt for blackberry bushes. He’s not there for the fruit, but rather the yeast that’s attracted to the fruit’s sugar.
After scouting a promising spot, Neeley hangs the buckets from nearby trees and leaves them up for three days. He then takes the buckets back to the distillery and isolates the wild yeast. The yeast is fed in a large tub known as a dona (a term of respect for a woman in many Latin cultures, not unlike the "don" in, say, Don Corleone) until he’s ready to pitch it into a new batch of whiskey.
“If the entire economy collapsed, if we had a full-blown, you know, apocalypse, I could still make whiskey,” Neeley explains. “I bet 95 percent of the people currently making whiskey couldn't do it, but I could still do it.”
He learned this process from Ed Foote, the legendary master distiller of Stitzel-Weller, the birthplace of such celebrated spirits as Pappy Van Winkle — and there is a method to the madness.
“The problem with wild yeast — and I don't wanna call it a problem because I love that they're doing this — the issue with wild yeast is that it's very hard to control consistency,” explains Drew Hannush, host of the Whiskey Lore podcast and author of a popular Kentucky bourbon travel guide. “But what it is doing is imparting on the whiskey a local character. In other words, the wild yeast that's floating around in central Kentucky is not necessarily the same as the wild yeast that’s floating around Missouri.”
The hanging yeast buckets are one of many time-consuming ways Neeley, the eleventh in an unbroken lineage of distillers, distinguishes his bourbon. Notably, he also uses a double pot still — a less efficient but more controlled method of distilling whiskey than the more popular column still — that requires him to be in the distillery seven days a week to monitor its output.
Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, puts it simply: “Despite their drawbacks, those methods occasionally produce magic.”
All this backbreaking work is in the service of spirits unlike anything you're likely to find on store shelves. To be sure, Neeley is making some of the most interesting whiskey in Kentucky. He likens it to producing colorful paint, created for one particularly prodigious painter: Jackie Zykan.
If you don't know Zykan, you know her work. As a master taster at Brown-Forman — parent company of numerous whiskey brands including Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve — she pioneered Old Forester’s beloved 117 and 150 series, dialing in the blend of the latter in her home kitchen using a Home Depot bucket. She’s also a “super taster” (a term she’s quick to shrug off) and too creatively restless to forever work within rigid flavor guidelines.
No wonder she left a role that some headlines called bourbon’s “dream job” after seven years. The surprising part was that, with numerous offers from other distilleries, she landed on a relatively unknown team of four.
“I explored many of those options, actually,” Zykan says. “I came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter. Maybe I would have a little bit more authority in what I was actually doing, but there were still gonna be 30 layers to go through. There were still going to be long-standing templates that I was gonna be trapped by. The only way to be free was to completely go from scratch.”
At Hidden Barn, she’s making the bourbon she wants to make. And she’s starting small. For the inaugural batch, which retailed for $75 a bottle, Zykan blended only seven barrels together. But she's not trying to take over the industry — just bring it something new.
“It's unique,” she explains. “It is bourbon, but it's expanding outside of this box of what we think bourbon's supposed to taste like. No, bourbon is all these things! By definition, it's hitting all of those little rules, but we're just giving it space to exist differently.”
In the pursuit of bourbon that’s interesting to both drink and discuss, Hidden Barn is taking notes from the collaborative culture seen in everything from streetwear to craft beer and teaming up with other small distilleries. The first one is, of course, Neeley Family Distillery, which is also the brand’s home base. They plan to team up with other like-minded distilleries in the future — and transparently showcase them on the bottle.
This approach differs markedly from the standard method of launching a whiskey label. Because it takes a few years of aging to even have your own product, new brands typically start by procuring contract whiskey from brokers, who buy and sell liquid from large, well-known distilleries that are white labeled — meaning their names don’t appear on the bottle. Later, when the new distillery gets to be four or five years old, they begin releasing their own homegrown spirits.
“The problem is that you launched a brand with liquid that wasn't yours and said, ‘This is what our brand tastes like,’” Zykan points out. “Then, four years later, the consumer who’s fallen in love with your brand goes, ‘Wait, but this is different. This is from a different place. This is a different still.’ And then they go and sniff off elsewhere. You've lost them. So what we're seeing in the industry right now is a critical moment for a lot of craft distilleries, to finally ripen with their own products.”
Nate Winegar, Hidden Barn’s brand ambassador, is a connector of people. Tall and bearded, with a big personality, Winegar is disarmingly modest.
What started as an informal gathering of whiskey fans headed by Winegar, Colorado’s 5280 Whiskey Society has grown to occupy a spot on a very short list of the most respected whiskey clubs in America. With the help of Matt Dankner, who runs the finances of both the club and Hidden Barn, Winegar legitimized 5280 and eventually hosted talks and tastings with a revolving door of whiskey A-listers.
But Winegar and Dankner wanted to do something more; they wanted to get into the business itself, in an original way.
“There are several distilleries across the country that maybe don't distribute outside their state or just haven't got a lot of marketing or noise or whatnot but are making really good product,” Winegar observes. “We felt like that's something that we wanted to be a part of, to showcase some of those distilleries."
So his radar went up at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival in 2019, when he heard a young buck from Sparta, Kentucky, asking a lot of questions.
“I was like, who is this kid?” says Winegar of Neeley. “Who is this guy that already knows so much? It made me feel like a beginner.”
Winegar shared his vision with Neeley and the two immediately saw eye to eye. Now they just needed someone to expertly taste and blend the whiskey.
Not exactly coincidentally, Winegar ran into Zykan at the Breckenridge Hogfest, a bacon and bourbon celebration in Colorado. In his hand was a special bottle: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, a rare annual release that can sell for upwards of $2,000 on the secondary market.
As Zykan recalls: “This eight-foot-tall man came out of nowhere, looking like Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, and walks up with a bottle of Birthday Bourbon in public and was like, ‘Hey, um, I know this might sound kind of strange …’”
At first, Zykan thought Winegar wanted her to sign the bottle. It is rare and expensive and allocated, after all. But, to her shock, he wanted to open the bottle right then and there to taste it with her.
The cork came off. Winegar set up his phone to record the impromptu interview. Afterwards, Zykan would visit the 5280 Whiskey Society to speak and lead tastings — and see firsthand the type of whiskey culture Winegar and Dankner had fostered.
The seeds of Hidden Barn were firmly planted.
Coincidentally, my trip to Hidden Barn happened just days before the 2022 Breckenridge Hogfest, which Zykan and Winegar planned to attend again, this time to represent their own brand. Zykan and I found ourselves in Sparta tasting one of the first bottles of Series One's Batch 2, the next release from Hidden Barn.
Committing to words tasting notes of a batch from Hidden Barn seems counter to the very identity of the brand. Plus, I’ve always found long lists that include words like “mouthfeel” to be a bit self-indulgent.
But I will say that the bourbon is singular. It’s complex and round and sits in your mouth, even between sips. Diluted with water, it keeps together, not slipping into a cheap version of itself on the melted end of a highball glass. Whereas some high-proof stuff — this batch clocks in at 110 — tends to hit a few notes really well, this pour feels more like a song played on a violin with extra strings. It’s layered in a way that makes you wonder how liquid that’s essentially 55 percent ethanol can sit in a barrel and become something so new that it’s hard to put into words — which I guess is why bourbon is worth sharing with friends.
What isn’t difficult to put into words is the very obvious presence of grain. It’s been a “big point of frustration in some of the reviews,” laments Zykan. And it’s easy to see why she’s frustrated: The grain, just like the fruitiness from the wild yeast, isn’t a flaw. It’s by design.
Unlike more modernized distilleries, which often distill to a scorching 160 proof (the legal limit), Neeley distilled Series One to around 127 proof. At this lower proof, more flavor is held onto in the distillate. To build on this flavor, Hidden Barn then barrels their distillate at 110 proof (again well below the legal limit for barrel entry of 125). The lower the proof of the liquid that enters the barrel, the more sugar that gets pulled out of the barrel. And at this lower proof, there’s more water, too, which interacts with the sugars differently than alcohol, lending a delicious fullgrain character.
“Think of sugar and water as friends that grew up together, they played on the same soccer team,” explains Zykan. “And sugar and alcohol are Facebook friends that just say happy birthday once a year. Like, they're ‘friends,’ but there's not a lot of depth to it.”
Five days of fermentation via wild yeast. Rich, textured flavors from pot stills. The whiskey is a punch of flavor, and the grain presence is impossible to miss.
“People are like, ‘It’s grainy.’ Yeah, I know! You're acting like it's a bad thing. You've been acclimated to think that grainy just means young, because that's all there is to offer with some of these super neutralized, stripped-out whiskeys,” exclaims Zykan, arms stretched wide in mock disbelief. “We embrace the grain because it's part of the process and we want you to taste the whole damn process.”
The timing could be just right for that philosophy. While Kentucky bourbon may be homogenous to the point that “different” feels like a death sentence, distilleries in other states have put in years of work paving the way for new expressions.
“We've been waiting for the moment that the bourbon consumer no longer compares everything to Blanton’s. I think we're there, you know, I think we're at that precipice moment. We have small distillers outside of Kentucky that are making bourbon that is every bit as good as Kentucky bourbon, but it ain't nowhere close to it,” says Minnick. “Unfortunately for Hidden Barn, they're going to be judged a lot more critically because they’re in Kentucky and they have an A-lister behind the brand. But I wouldn't bet against Jackie.”
The name Hidden Barn is a nod to an old practice of farmers and distillers coming together during Prohibition to aid illegal distilleries. The bacteria Baudoinia compniacensis, which lives on alcohol vapor, leaves behind black spots. These spots became an obvious giveaway for illegal distilling operations. That was, until the day that Kentuckians started painting all their barns black, making distinguishing a hay barn from an illegal whiskey barn virtually impossible.
I’m not fond of extrapolating too much meaning from names, but this concept of coming together kept resurfacing in conversations I had while writing this piece. In case you forgot, bourbon wasn’t always booming. When the boom came on the heels of the vodka-loving ’80s and ’90s, the adage in Kentucky was always “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Or, more pointedly, “thank god, we’re actually selling bourbon.”
And now a second, smaller wave is coming. One that tries new things. One that isn’t afraid to be transparent and showcase other distilleries. One that wants to get people drinking and talking about whiskey. Interesting whiskey, maybe whiskey you haven’t heard of before. As I near the end of my journey, it’s obvious Hidden Barn is here to cultivate and share what the founding partners have been doing all along: drinking and talking about interesting whiskey with friends, new and old.
“We need to get out of this mindset that it has to be allocated or that it has to be something everyone knows,” says Hannush. “It’s more advantageous to expand your palate and give these distilleries that are doing more creative projects a chance.”
And that’s what Hidden Barn has set out to do, both with the whiskey Neeley is making, and with other, yet-to-be-announced craft distilleries down the road. They’ll be reaching out to lesser-heard voices. They’ll be bringing a new wave of attitude and flavor to whiskey.
Hanging with Zykan in Kentucky, the future feels bright but uncertain. But in no uncertain terms, she’s adamant about one thing: Don’t be precious. There’s another batch of Hidden Barn right around the corner, and it’ll be new and different and something else to taste and talk about.
So, please. If you get your hands on one, just open the damn bottle.
Small But Mighty: 5 More Craft Distilleries to Watch
Competing with the established whiskey brands of Kentucky isn’t easy, but these upstart operations are paving their own way through unique flavors and techniques.
1. Laws Whiskey (Denver, CO)
By using only heirloom and heritage grains, Laws focuses on showcasing the terroir of Colorado in every bottle.
2. Coppersea Distilling (Hudson Valley, NY)
Abandoned techniques resurface at Coppersea, including in-house grain malting, direct-fire copper stills and open wood fermentation tanks.
3. Ironroot Republic (Denison, TX)
Along with Garrison Brothers and Balcones, Ironroot is making Texas a powerhouse of flavors you can’t get anywhere else.
4. Huber's Starlight Distillery (Starlight, IN)
Part of a family farm that expanded into a winery and then a distillery, Starlight is a one-stop shop offering unique whiskey highlighted by local ingredients and novel barrel finishes.
5. Green River Distilling (Owensboro, KY)
With a 137-year history and extensive renovations under the leadership of an eighth-generation master distiller, this distillery recently reclaimed the Green River name for the first time since 1918.