By Mitzi Oxford

Kentucky. The state evokes a full sensory perception, from the sight of beautiful bluegrass against white fenced horse farms and the iconic sound of bluegrass music, to the thrill of college basketball and the historical home of Louisville Slugger bats. The food and drink from the state captures the taste buds of America and provides a little taste of Heaven. Kentucky is home to the Colonel’s famous fried chicken, Jif Peanut Butter, Hot Browns and bourbon.

The state is dominant in distilling the distinctive corn-based, barrel-aged whiskey. Distilling has been passed down through generations. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Bluegrass State produces and ages approximately 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey.

On its way to becoming bourbon, Kentucky’s water flows through limestone reserves – the same mineral said to make horses grow stronger. Along with the ideal climate and fertile soil for growing corn and other ingredients, you’ve got the perfect conditions for bourbon-making and for Kentucky to be named the world’s bourbon capital.

The state is also home to Caleb Kilburn, a young man who is making a name for himself in the bourbon distilling business. Colonel Sanders was 62 when he founded KFC, the typical stage in life for a Master Distiller. Caleb is half that age and holds the title of Master Distiller of the Year for 2023.

“I was stunned to receive the award out of 100s of distillers across the country, especially as the youngest Master Distiller in the industry. It was a dream come true for me,” said Caleb.

His rise to bourbon distilling fame may seem faster than thoroughbreds running the Derby, but has not come without work ethics which can be traced back to his formative years.


Caleb grew up on a dairy farm in Salt Lick, Kentucky. He, his parents and grandparents lived on the same land, working the farm together including caring for 60 head of Holsteins. Though primarily focused on cattle and grain, they also raised chickens, goats, pigs, mules and horses.

Before Caleb was born, his grandfather “Poppy” was involved in a tractor accident that resulted in the loss of his right arm. Poppy defied expectations and resumed his role on the farm upon recovery.

“I grew up watching my grandfather adapt and overcome his challenges. As soon as I was old enough to help, I became Poppy’s right arm. I learned invaluable lessons on problem solving, persistence and determination working alongside him.”

His grandfather also bought Caleb his first pony, Macaroni, when he was less than a year old. He grew up riding on the family farm, and at the age of six, took his first riding lessons under Nicole Tolle at Seventh Heaven Farm.

“My first show horse was Angel’s Headlight. I was in the stall with her when she was born. I named her after the large white spot on her nose. Our first show together was at the Owingsville Lions Club horse show when I was nine years old. It was our first and only blue ribbon together.”

Over the next 10 years, Caleb would show in more pleasure classes and compete in juvenile and amateur performance divisions with Night Doctor, Main Majorette and He’s Hot As Fire. He won two world championships on Main Majorette, crediting trainer Jeff Willis for his role in their success.

“We spent many nights in motels traveling from Kentucky to shows across the state and in Tennessee and Alabama. I loved every minute of it whether I was in the winner’s circle or not. The showing was great, but the friendships that developed during that time are what made the experience unforgettable for me.”

Caleb said the walking horse community “shaped him” and is a contributing factor to where he is today.


All those life lessons paid off for Caleb. They became a catalyst for exploring how things work. In 2014, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from Morehead State University with a Chemistry major and an Integrated Sciences minor.

“I fell in love with science and engineering, which led me to fall in love with Bourbon, or rather how it was made. I became fascinated with every step of the process and ultimately came to view distilling as an art built on science.”

The recipes for great bourbon mirror the science and art of preparing great food. Some of the best chefs around the world refer to Kentucky bourbon as the “true American spirit”, not only for sipping, but to add to recipes to take them to the next level including main dishes, side dishes and desserts such as bourbon pecan pie.

“Once the fascination for bourbon distilling took hold, I read and learned everything I could about making whiskey. I toured distilleries. I made friends with the distillers that are the rock stars of the industry. They shared their craft and gave me a hand up in their world,” said Caleb.

In 2014, he went to work for Peerless Distilling Company. It was a new distillery that was under construction to resurrect a brand that began in the 1880s. Corky Taylor and his son Carson are descendants of their namesake’s founder. They welcomed Caleb to their team to serve as a general laborer.

Thanks to his mechanical acumen and area knowledge, Caleb quickly proved his worth and took over the production side of the business. He oversaw and established the production process and philosophies that would become the foundation of Peerless whiskey.

“Corky Taylor had faith in me. I’ve been blessed at every stage in my life. Without the eight years of experience with Peerless, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In December of 2018, Caleb earned the title of “Master Distiller,” becoming the youngest to achieve that accolade.

During his time at Peerless Distilling, Caleb worked with Cordell Lawrence. Cordell’s great-grandfather was a doctor. In those days, doctors made house calls and patients sometimes bartered for services. One patient paid Cordell’s great-grandfather with a handmade still.

After earning his business degree from Transylvania University, Cordell brought his marketing and communications skills to the distilling world. He worked with iconic brands like Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Maker’s Mark before joining the Peerless team.

It’s a venture that is applauded by the community and state leadership for its predicted impact on more than just the spirits industry.

“We plan to bring positive change to a region of the state that has been overlooked for far too long. We plan to hire local talent, purchase local grains, provide a cheap feedstock to local farmers and promote tourism to highlight Eastern Kentucky’s natural beauty.”

“Our signature bourbon industry is making its way into Eastern Kentucky with an exciting new company, Eastern Light Distilling,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. “This new distilling operation will not only help foster growth in our craft bourbon industry, but will also bring new economic development investment, well paying jobs and another great reason for tourists to visit the region. This is the kind of homegrown company that makes Kentucky and our signature bourbon industry so special.”

The 230-acre campus will be home to an approximately 50,000 square foot distillery building, rickhouses, a full bottling facility, a unique bourbon tourism experience, a special event space and other operations employing more than 50 full-time staff.

Eastern Light will also become the distillery home for many different craft bourbon brands, offering their partners the unique opportunity to showcase their stories to bourbon enthusiasts and tourists alike.


Last year, Caleb, as a Master Distiller, and Cordell, Chief Operating Officer for Peerless, left the company to follow a new dream, Eastern Light Distilling.

“Eastern Light Distilling will be our legacy project. The new distillery is being built to supply craft and independent brands with everything that they need to succeed in a way that has never bee done before. Beyond giving them access to world class new-make whiskey, Eastern Light will give them a home.”

“Through our skill set in branding, marketing, blending and distillation, we are committed to unlocking the key to success for many craft brands, of which there are 1000s.”


“Growing up in the Walking Horse industry exposed me to a many successful individuals who are extremely community minded. Watching the various entrepreneurs and professionals use their talents to better the world around them made a great impression on me. Those values really shaped what Eastern Light Distilling will become,” said Caleb.

Caleb says that the response from the walking horse community to Eastern Light and its mission have been amazing. He extends a personal invitation to anyone who would be interested in learning more about Eastern Light Distilling, as there is still an opportunity to join the venture.

“I have been thrilled with the character of our investing partners, as I know that they will enable Eastern Light to achieve greatness, both in our industry as well as our community. I would welcome anyone with a sense of purpose to reach out to learn more about investing in Eastern Light.”

A ride on a good Tennessee Walking Horse is described as a smooth ride like a well-oiled machine or a sip of smooth bourbon.

“The unofficial motto that my family has followed is the notion of belonging to the ‘legion of the jazzed’ which is derived from a sermon my parents became attached to as a young couple. The premise is that you can make it through life making safe decisions and never taking risks, but that you’ll never live a vibrant life with that mindset. Instead, it encourages you to have faith, take chances, put your heart into everything that you do and experience life in a way the leaves you with few regrets.”

The first barrel should roll out in the fall of 2025. Here comes the dawning of a brand new day, Eastern Light.