Making history with chemistry

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Lexus Hoskins, Washington County's first female professional distiller, works at the Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville. Photo: Thomas Johns for Rabbit Hole Distillery

Philadelphia has cheesesteaks. New York City has bagels. Several cities claim barbecue and pizza. But only Kentucky has real bourbon.

The Kentuckiana area has long held a culture of, legally and illegally, brewing and distilling various types of alcohol, but the bourbon industry has, more or less, entirely been a man’s world. Until recently.

There are comparatively very few women bourbon distillers and finally, a Washington County native has joined their ranks.

'I just fell in love with it'

Lexus Hoskins is a 2013 Salem High School graduate. After high school, she went to Indiana University Southeast, wanting to major in theatre, but was convinced to major in something more stable, so she majored in chemistry.

However, that wasn’t fitting the bill.

“I sat my parents down and said, ‘I love chemistry, but it’s killing me,’” said Hoskins.

The work was harder than she thought and the grades were based only on tests. Also, she knew it wasn’t something she was passionate about, so she added a theatre major and college became even harder. She dropped chemistry and stuck with theatre until her junior year, when she switched to Communications-Theatre Business.

During this time, a friend of hers, Alex Lynch, told her about a part-time job opportunity as a tour guide at Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville.

“I really had never had any experience as a tour guide,” said Hoskins. “I’d done everything from retail to food service and so on and so forth. Alex basically said, ‘You get a script, you memorize it, talk to people about bourbon and distillation and you’re paid double minimum wage. I was freshly 21, so I thought it was a good deal.”

She was hired the summer before her senior year. She looked at the job as a chance to network with people in the Louisville area, where people from around the world come for business, tourism and, yes, bourbon.

“I learned a lot about bourbon and I learned a lot about the history of Louisville and I just fell in love with it,” she said.

It was a nice way to put some money in her pocket and buy some time while she was still trying to figure out how to use her theatre business skills.

“I had an entire plan, actually four different plans, for after college,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Chicago or maybe I’ll go to Atlanta or New York or whatever and it just wasn’t feasible for me. For my degree, I needed an internship. I applied all over the place — Disney themeparks, ABC, FOX, all these different TV networks, local theatres, everywhere. Almost every single company I received a rejection letter from told me, “Due to your lack of experience, we can’t hire you,’ and that never made sense to me.”

Frustrated, she talked with a mentor of hers, Daniel Main, director of the local Washington County Actor’s Theatre, who offered her an internship through that program. She developed an acting program for kids and teens, specifically in small towns, during a capstone class at school, and implemented it.

“I called it Workshop for the Young Actor, or WYA, and I did that for one summer after my graduation,” she said. “It was a success because I did have people sign up, but not as many as I’d hoped. I had three wonderful students who applied and it was an intense workshop. It was about eight weeks during the summer and I taught them everything I didn’t know when I was their age. I know when I got into college, it was a bit of a culture shock. I knew about theatre, but there was so much more I didn’t know. I didn’t know you had to network or write up a correct resume for acting or dancers, so I reverted that back to them.”

As much as she loved the program, it wasn’t sustainable as a career for her, so she said she sat herself down and tried to figure out what she was going to do. If theatre and chemistry didn’t work out, maybe something with bourbon and distilling would. It’s a growing field and there’s room for women to make their mark.

'I was just lost'

Between June 2017 and February 2018, she applied for three full-time positions at Evan Williams.

“I didn’t get any of them,” she said. “I don’t have any grudges against the people who did get the positions. In fact, I’m actually really proud of the people who did get those positions.”

After receiving her third rejection, she asked her boss, “What do I need to do?” He replied that there was just nothing available at the time. So she left to find a distillery that did have an opening. It was almost a year after her college graduation and she needed something full-time. It didn’t matter what the job was. She applied at several positions in “marketing,” but those turned out to be souped-up greeters at retail stores like Best Buy. She once had five interviews scheduled for those positions in one day. She went to two of them and cancelled the other three. Then she did something, given the current typical request of online resume and application submission, that could have denied her positions and jobs.

“I knew this was not what I needed,” she said. “I’ll never forget this — I was in my car and it was May of last year. I literally looked over at my manilla folder with 10 copies of my resume. I decided I’d do something a bit risky and aggressive and I literally walked around downtown to different distilleries and physically gave them my resume.”

She went to Copper and Kings, Peerless Distillery, Jim Beam on 4th Street, and drove outside of Louisville to the Old Kentucky Distillery and more. She tried smaller, less-established distilleries as well, including Rabbit Hole Distillery, located on Jefferson Street in Louisville.

“Rabbit Hole didn’t have a link from their website that said ‘apply here,’ so I went on their Facebook page and said, ‘I’m really interested in applying for any position you have available. How do I do that?’” she said.

Despite the face-to-face connection and all the work she put in to get her resume in the hands of hirers, she received rejection after rejection.

“I really started to doubt myself because I didn’t know what the issue was,” she said. “I was just lost.”

She received a rejection email from Jim Beam on 4th Street and then, just five minutes later, she received an email from a woman named Jennifer Murley.

“She said, ‘I’d love to have you come interview!,’” said Hoskins. “‘I’m sorry for the delayed response. I’ve had your resume on my desk for a while, but it’s been crazy on my end for a while,’ and I said, ‘I’d love to!’”

So she went and sat through three interviews before being hired as their first, official full-time tour guide in July 2018.

“I was expecting the same thing I had at Evan Williams,” she said. “… With Rabbit Hole, it was different. I did get a script and Jennifer really took hold of me and molded me in what to say and do, but at the same time, she asked for a little bit of my advice on how we should deliver this or how this or that worked. It honestly threw me for a loop.”

Rabbit Hole Distillery was established in 2012 and is comparatively new to the boubon game. It’s a small operation and Hoskins said she really liked the family-oriented atmosphere. She said Rabbit Hole also honors transparency and is very open to fully explaining and opening guests up to every step of the process.

Hoskins said, at other facilities, much of the credit goes to one person, the master distiller, but at Rabbit Hole, there is no master distiller. They work together as a team. There’s a production head, Cameron Talley, but there is no one person receiving all the credit for the bourbon.

So how did Hoskins make the jump from leading tours to distilling bourbon?

“I didn’t expect to be hired as a distiller,” she said. “In my interview to be a tour guide, they asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said, ‘Well, I’d really like to be considered for production. I have an interest in distillation.’ I didn’t expect that for five years or so.”

In August, a month after being hired, while talking with Talley at a staff meeting, he told her the company was hiring for a distiller position. He suggested she apply, but she said she didn’t have much experience. Still, Talley encouraged her to apply. She went in for an interview and it turned out, she did have enough experience and she has been distilling bourbon ever since, the first official, legal female distiller from Washington County and the only female distiller at Rabbit Hole.

“I’d been in the bourbon industry for two years, while in college, I had experience in chemistry, and even in theatre, I had basic carpentry skills,” she said. “I was hired on my birthday. September 24, I started my journey of a distiller.”

'Every single day, I go in and learn something new'

Hoskins said she’s so grateful for the chances she’s been given throughout her experience in the bourbon industry.

“I’ll never forget the first time I met Kaveh Zamanian,” she said. “Coming from something so small, it was a culture shock for me. I didn’t know what to expect. I was a little intimidated by Kaveh at first. When I first met him, he talked to me like I was an old friend.”

It’s been a learning experience. She trained for about a month and continues to learn as she goes.

“Every single day, I go in and learn something new about our equipment,” she said. “It’s a large facility, so I was a little intimidated at first. Evan Williams has a very small facility there and make about one barrell a day. We make about 60 a day. We have large vats and fermenters that hold 7,800 gallons of mash in each one. It was intimidating thinking I get to operate all of this.”

She said she enjoys the title of the only female distiller at her company. There are several other female distillers in the region, including one at Jeptha Creed, Bullitt Distillery and the master distiller at Michter’s, Pam Heilmann, is the first woman since Prohibition to serve as a Master Distiller at a Kentucky Distillers Association Distillery. Heilmann is also the executive vice president of production at that distillery. In 2016, a Saveur article cited Marianne Barnes, now 31, as the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition. Either way, there is a rising tide of women in the bourbon business, something Hoskins is pleased to be a part of.

“I plan to meet a lot of female distillers on my journey, but for such a long time, it was always male-driven, just like a lot of industries,” said Hoskins. “I don’t know when it all started [with women jumping into the business], but I’m sure it’s been within the last 20 years or so.”

Being the first woman from Washington County is still something she’s working on wrapping her mind around. Hoskins first knew her job made history when Alan Bishop, a member of the Washington County Historical Society Board of Directors and master distiller at the French Lick Winery, made a post on social media and featured her on his blog, The Alchemist Cabinet.

“I had no clue there was a history of distillers in Washington County,” she said. “Heck, I thought about Salem High School — which gave me an excellent education and I had a 4.0 GPA — but I hated history. I couldn’t stand it. The only thing I remember about local history was John Hunt Morgan riding through town. One time in high school, they talked about the 1950s, including the music, which was my thing at the time, and that was cool, but I didn’t really have an interest in history until I got into college and I really started to learn about where I came from and Louisville. I think distiller’s history should be taught. It’s a huge industry and it’s getting bigger … I think it’s amazing.”

Hoskins said her favorite part of her job, beyond bragging rights, is the process itself.

“It’s saying, ‘This is what I made and this is how I did it,’” she said. “The first barrell I ever made was in the beginning of October 2018 and I’ll have to wait three years for it to be done. Knowing people are buying it, drinking it and enjoying it — it’s an interesting satisfaction.”

So what is that process?

“All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” she said. “There are a lot of different rules. It has to be made in the United States. It must consist of at least 51 percent corn. It has to be aged in a brand new, white oak, American barrell. You can’t add anything to it, which I think is kind of romantic, in a way. Boubon is truly an American spirit. Bourbon-making has been done for hundreds of years.”

Along with the requisitef 51 percent corn, distillers add either rye or wheat, and malted barley.

“Rye is a darker grain and it’s going to give you a little more of a spicier taste to your bourbon,” said Hoskins. “Wheat is a paler grain and will give it more of a smoother taste, which is honestly, what I prefer on most days.”

Malt, she said, is the key because it contains enzymes when the grains are ground together into a flour-like consistency and then cooked with water.

“It’s like following a recipe,” said Hoskins. “You heat it up, cool it down, hold it for so many minutes, put love and time and care into it.”

The mixture of grain and water is called mash, which gets transferred into a fermenter, where yeast is added, which activates with the grain enzymes, creating heat, carbon dioxide and, of course, alcohol.

Rabbit Hole distillers wait three days for the fermentation process, where they are met with what’s technically considered a beer with an eight-percent alcohol content. The beer is tranferred into another vat called a beer well, where it’s then sent up a tube into a beer warmer. From there, it goes into a still.

“We have a column still,” said Hoskins. “It’s a 24-inch wide, 48-foot tall column still. It has these little plates in between the levels and little windows so you can see into the still.”

The beer goes into the top of the still and works its way down. Particles in the beer will fall and the vapor will rise up. Distillers cool the vapor into a condenser where liquid called low wine is caught up. Low wine is about 125- to 128-proof.

“With proof, you divide that number in half and that is your percentage of alcohol,” she said. “So 100-proof is 50% alcohol.”

As it turns out, a liquid that’s 64-percent alcohol doesn’t have quite enough alcohol in it, so distillers take that liquid and put it in a doubler, where depending on the temperature, the proof can … well … double. It’s turned into a vapor again, where it’s caught in a high wine condenser, which, for Rabbit Hole, is now a 135- to 138-proof. That is sent to the gauging tank and then a DMA, which measures the alcohol content. It’s then cut down to 110-proof with water and barrelled.

So that chemistry background certainly came in handy.

“With guests at the distillery, I get one of two statements,” said Hoskins. “I get, ‘Well, I don’t like bourbon. I don’t drink bourbon.’ My answer is, ‘Well, it’s not that you don’t like bourbon as a whole. You just haven’t found the one you like yet.’ The other statement is ‘Well, bourbon seems to be pretty complicated.’ Not really. Not more complicated than any other alcohol.”

Her passion for and attachment to bourbon doesn’t necessarily mean she’s solely a bourbon-drinker, either.

“I drink all kinds of stuff, but I’ve definitely figured out what types of alcohol I don’t like,” she said. “Tequila, for one. It upsets my stomach.”

Bourbon hasn’t always been a part of Hoskins’ life.

“At 17, I think I knew it was made in Kentucky,” she said. “That was it. That’s all I knew and it was because I watched something about it with my dad on the History Channel. I didn’t understand how big of a deal it was until I started in the industry.”

A question she receives frequently is how are you supposed to drink bourbon?

“I can’t answer that,” she said. “It’s all about personal preference … Honestly, for me, it depends on my mood. If I’m really in the mood for bourbon, I’ll drink it on the rocks or neat, very rarely do I make cocktails. My poor man’s cocktail is bourbon and lemonade.”

'The sky's the limit for me'

“I’m just really proud I’m part of such a small, but growing, group of women,” said Hoskins. “I would love the opportunity to join the Bourbon Women. You pay a yearly membership fee and do different events. I’d love to do that and have opportunities to go to different events, especially in today’s society where, for such a long time, women were repressed for so many different reasons. We’ve been saying it for years, but we can do just about everything. I love the fact that, being in this position, I can definitely reiterate that.”

Hoskins said she’s eager to learn more about the bourbon industry.

“There’s still so much I don’t know,” she said. “It’s almost too much.”

She said her job and bourbon itself is not about getting drunk.

“Distillers and people in the industry will tell you the real reason of alcohol is to be able to experience the taste of it, the nose of it,” she said. “… It’s not this bad thing. It’s amazing. Alcohol is such a big part of our history and we should be educated more about it.”

Once she’s “1,000% comfortable” with her job as a distiller, she wants to promote Rabbit Hole in addition to distilling. She would like to go to events and travel to bring more recognition to the distillery.

“The sky’s the limit for me,” she said. “I’m very grateful for where I’ve gotten and I never would have expected to be where I am today without my ambition and the support and love of my friends and family. It’s been one heck of a ride. I have so much more going on very, very soon!”

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