When New Riff Distilling founder Ken Lewis got his start in the alcohol business, it was only meant to be temporary. In the 1980s at 24, he was teaching high school English when his father asked for his help operating a small local liquor store called Liquor Outlet. Despite his plan to help around the store for only a year before returning to teach, Lewis uncovered a love for the beverage industry and transformed the shop from a simple booze purveyor to a one-stop shop for all things festive. A few years later, Lewis was the owner of the Liquor Outlet, which had since expanded to six stores and was rebranded as The Party Source.

There, Lewis met and befriended Jay Erisman, The Party Source’s fine-spirits manager. Having observed American whiskey’s success, it didn’t take long for the duo to think up a whiskey brand of their own, which would riff on old bourbon-making traditions. In 2014, they set up shop across the parking lot from The Party Source to establish New Riff Distilling in Newport, Ky., a distillery committed to producing spirits in accordance with the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act.

Now that you know the basics, here are 10 more things to know about New Riff Distilling.

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  1. New Riff Distilling is entirely family-owned.

    When planting roots for New Riff’s operations, it was critical for Lewis and Erisman to have complete control to ensure quality never took a hit for short-term gains. The two co-founders took on no external partners, investors, or shareholders when building their distillery from the ground up. To this day, New Riff remains entirely family-owned and -operated.

  2. The distilling operation has roots in the brewing industry.

    While the two co-founders were putting together the distillery’s team, they knew they didn’t want to build a staff entirely of bourbon industry vets. While training Larry Ebersold — New Riff’s consulting master distiller, nicknamed the “godfather of rye whiskey” — he recommended Lewis and Erisman consider hiring a brewer. After all, a whiskey’s flavor begins with fermentation, and brewers know fermentation. Coincidentally, Brian Sprance had just departed from Boston Beer following half a decade making Sam Adams, and was looking for something new. He joined New Riff in 2014 as its first head distiller, using his brewing knowledge to produce unique mash bills incorporating malted oats, pale ale malts, chocolate malts, and more. In January 2024, Brian Sprance was named New Riff’s first master distiller.

  3. The distillery is built atop an ancient aquifer, which makes for an ideal water source.

    Water is important in any kind of distillation, which is why it’s vital for brands to have access to a quality water source Luckily, New Riff’s distillery sits just 100 feet above an ancient aquifer created by the same glaciation that formed the Ohio River Valley. To determine whether or not the water would be suitable for whiskey distillation, the co-founders studied historical documents and consulted with hydrologists and water chemists at the University of Kentucky. In this research, they discovered that the water running through the aquifer is extremely hard water with high concentrations of calcium. In other words, it was perfect. When constructing the distillery, the team dug a 100-foot well to tap into the water source, which can pump out 500 gallons of water per minute.

    This access to the well water also significantly reduces the distillery’s carbon footprint. Throughout the whiskey-making process, a great deal of cold water is required to cool down vapors, transforming them into the precious juice. But as New Riff’s well pushes out water at 58 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, they’re able to cut back the amount of energy required to cool water to the desired temperature for distillation.

  4. Every batch of New Riff whiskey is made with the sour mash technique…

    New Riff established itself with a core ethos of “new riffs on old traditions.” The distillery practices this through its Kentucky Regimen, its own riff on the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act. In accordance with the regimen, each batch of whiskey produced at the distillery is made using the sour mash technique, which incorporates spent grain from a former round of distillation in the mash bill for a new round. Beyond sour mashing, the Kentucky Regimen mandates a four-day, open co-fermentation to achieve a natural rise and collection of flavors from the distinct microflora used before distillation on the grain in a copper column still. The method also demands that the distillery’s whiskey enters into a continuous doubler for a second distillation before it’s ready to mature.

  5. …and nothing comes from a small barrel.

    Every whiskey produced at New Riff Distilling takes a minimum for four years to mature. Each batch enters into a full-size, 53-gallon barrel and left to mature in a bonded warehouse, in line with the restrictions of the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act.

    When the distillery was just getting off the ground, the team also spent a significant amount of time experimenting with barrel types to determine which would be the best for maturation. Ebersold advised they use basic, standard-issue bourbon barrels to establish a baseline of flavor before determining which technique to use. The brand then adopted the “keep it simple, stupid” approach, and still uses 100 percent toasted oak barrels today, along with a few barrels that use extra air drying on the staves. When it comes time for bottling, each whiskey is bottled sans chill-filtration, and all expressions, save for those produced in the Single Barrel Program and Kentucky Sour Mash, are bottled at 50 percent ABV.

  6. New Riff’s flagship whiskeys include a bourbon and a rye.

    While the distillery was founded in 2014, it wasn’t until 2018 that the first whiskeys from the brand were released: Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Kentucky Straight Rye, both aged in toasted and charred new oak barrels. The former is produced from a mash bill of 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley, producing a bourbon rich with cherry wood, peanut, and vanilla aromas and an energetic high-rye palate. The rye whiskey is made from a mash bill of 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted rye, and opens with minty and peppery aromas while caramel and baking spice notes shine on the palate.

  7. The brand offers a number of experimental whiskeys.

    In addition to its two flagship whiskeys, New Riff also produces expressions that experiment with grains, mash, and maturation techniques. The Backsetter series, which includes a bourbon and a rye, features a sour mash made with a backset of spent peat-smoked malted barley. This barley imparts a layer of smoke reminiscent of Islay Scotches accompanied by grassy rye flavors. The brand’s Balboa Rye is made with 95 percent Balboa rye — an heirloom 1940s grain that hasn’t been used for distillation in decades — and 5 percent malted rye, while wheat is the focus of experimentation in the brand’s Red Turkey Wheat Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

    Sprance’s brewing prowess is on full display in the brand’s Kentucky Sour Mash Single Malt, which is bottled at 56.9 percent ABV and consists of a whopping six mash bills that were matured and combined over seven years. Thanks to mash bills like 100 percent Marris Otter (a British ale malt), barley wine-style malts, and Belgian quadrupel-style malts, the whiskey takes on chocolaty and citrusy flavors with red and dark fruit accents. The brand’s beloved Winter Whiskey is similarly beer-adjacent, inspired by the oatmeal stouts made by the distilling team in their brewing days.

  8. New Riff produces gin made from wild-foraged Kentucky botanicals.

    While most well known for its innovative whiskey production, New Riff also offers two gin expressions made from 11 botanicals. Bottled at 47 percent ABV, the brand’s Kentucky Wild Gin incorporates ingredients like American allspice, Kentucky juniper, traditional juniper, orris root, and more, the first two of which are foraged locally in Kentucky. Each batch of the gin includes a small amount of new-make rye whiskey, which is said to enrich the texture of the spirit and lengthen the flavor, which the brand says is citrus-spiced with a balanced juniper finish. The brand also produces a bourbon barrel-aged version, aged between five and seven months. According to the brand, this maturation period bestows notes of oak tannin, spicebush, and vanilla oak.

  9. Distillery visitors can bottle whiskey from a barrel of their own choosing.

    For those interested in unique single-barrel bourbons, New Riff offers customers the opportunity to personally select the barrel they want their whiskey to come from at no additional cost. Participants of the Single Barrel Selection Program are presented with a selection of approximately 25 barrels and asked to narrow their choices down to five, at which point they’re welcomed into the distillery’s tasting room at the West Newport Warehouse Campus for a sample of each. After the evaluation, each person selects their most preferred barrel and takes home a 100 milliliter  sample, bottled at barrel proof without chill filtration. After 30 days, participants are able to pick up their bottles of whiskey at the distillery, complete with a personalized label.

  10. While the founders built up their own stocks, they released sourced whiskey under another name.

    As the brand’s co-founders had no intention of selling any whiskey less than four years old, they needed a different stream of income to sustain the distillery during its first four years. So while the distillery’s stocks were aging, New Riff released a high-rye bourbon called O.K.I. Straight Bourbon Whiskey, consisting of juice entirely sourced from Indiana’s MGP. The duo made the decision to release their original spirit under a different label so as not to confuse consumers when they started releasing whiskey of their own. As Erisman told Breaking Bourbon, the brand never intended to do a “switcheroo” where Kentucky whiskey suddenly replaced Indiana-sourced bourbon with no clear distinction. While O.K.I. Straight Bourbon Whiskey is no longer produced by New Riff, the brand still exists and is currently owned by whiskey entrepreneurs Chad Brizendine and Jake Warm.