Three entrepreneurs pioneer the non-alcoholic bourbon industry
By Ellie Kemper
Photos by Amy Campbell Photography
When Kentucky bourbon experts told Spiritless Co-Founders Lauren Chitwood, Abbey Ferguson and Lexie Larsen that a non-alcoholic bourbon just couldn’t be done, they simply didn’t listen. These three mothers and entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to create a novel product when they noticed consumer demand shifting in America as several companies found success with non-alcoholic vodkas and gins. Even though it had never been done before, the co-founders knew that if they were going to launch a spirits business in Kentucky, bourbon was the obvious choice. Because this venture was so unique, it gave them a competitive edge that made the possible outcome worth the risk.
Like many inventions and discoveries for entrepreneurs, the first Spiritless experiments took place in the co-founders’ homes. “We started very simply, trying to play with 4-year-old bourbons in our basement. We had a big stockpot, a PVC pipe and a water pump and we were kind of tinkering ourselves,” CEO Lauren Chitwood explains. Chitwood and her partners got opinions from expert distillers who ultimately doubted the possibility of a non-alcoholic bourbon, but Chitwood attests that these doubts were just one of several roadblocks. The expert distillers “could not pull away from the problem quite enough to consider solutions outside of what they knew about making bourbon,” Chitwood said. “That’s the biggest piece about being an entrepreneur, we had a roadblock every single day. It’s about your ability to see it and acknowledge it and to keep going.” And so, they did just that.
The three co-founders incorporated in October of 2019 and recruited a chemical engineer from overseas to help them create their very own distillation process. Within a year, they had mastered the process and released their first product. “We actually did this really fast and that was intentional,” says Chitwood. Their product, Kentucky 74, is a one-of-a-kind non-alcoholic bourbon that has an equally unique story to go with it. Chitwood explains the story behind the name, Kentucky 74: “We were in line to be the 74th distillery in the state and we wanted to pick a number and 74 just felt natural. Also, because we can’t call ourselves a bourbon directly, it is really important to give the consumer as many nods and indications as to what they are going to experience. Kentucky just feels like you know what you’re getting and that’s how Kentucky 74 was named.” Although Spiritless hopes to focus on a national reach with its product, Kentucky is home for the three co-founders and bourbon was the perfect fit for their first product. Chitwood claims that “Kentucky has great storytelling” and the best location for Spiritless to distill and launch its first product.
To make the novel Kentucky 74, Spiritless uses a unique two-step distillation process. Part of the reason the co-founders were able to put their product on the market so quickly was that their distillation process is condensed compared to typical bourbon distillation. Chitwood explains their first step, “In a process that is two hours long, not four years, what we do is put grain-neutral spirit and oak into intense heat and intense pressure and we modulate it and bring it up and down. We do all these things to put it through a similar experience as in a rickhouse, just in a shorter amount of time. And this process creates an extremely high-proof, intensely flavored spirit.” While the result is not technically bourbon, Chitwood explains that what they are really aiming for at this stage of the process is a high-quality spirit with all the intense flavors associated with bourbon: oak, vanilla, caramel and smoke. The second step is what Spiritless co-founders call “reverse distillation.” “We are taking out all the ethanol, all the esters, all the things that make you feel bad the next day. What we are left with is this really delicious concentrate that has all of the flavors and oils from the oak, all the things that make your pallet go, ‘Oh my goodness, I recognize this!’ And that becomes Kentucky 74,” explains Chitwood.
One aspect of this process that Chitwood emphasized was that they “really intentionally made [Kentucky 74] so it blended beautifully with a full-proof spirit.” The co-founders want to allow room for consumers to choose a cocktail that has both bourbon and Spiritless, or to just go full-on Spiritless! Chitwood and her co-founders describe themselves as their most specific target demographic, which has given them an understanding of how to effectively market their product. Chitwood says “it’s not that we are sober every day, it’s just that we have really big, busy lives. We’ve got kids, we start early and we work all day. And then we go into a business dinner and we may even go in early for a happy hour before a business dinner.” All of these commitments make it “really hard to have alcohol be a part of your life every day, still meet your fitness goals, meet your sleep goals and frankly just be functional,” said Chitwood. Spiritless believes that this is a great opportunity for the cautious drinker to minimize their ABV and to cut their calories in half, claiming that it “allows people to have a more empowered and more inclusive experience in their social life.”
Since launching Kentucky 74 in the summer of 2020, Spiritless has orders from all 50 states and has plans to sell Spiritless gin and tequila in 2021. CEO Lauren Chitwood describes their hopes for the future, saying, “our big crazy goal is we want you to be able to sit at any restaurant or bar, open up that cocktail menu and pick whatever you like, whether it’s a Paloma or an Old Fashioned, and I want you to be able to say, ‘I want to have that Spiritless.’”