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Lisa Wicker’s Unconventional Path to Distilling

While Lisa Wicker was a student at Indiana University Bloomington, she realized that making beverage alcohol was something people actually did for a living. She even tinkered with fermentation once while she was home for a break, leaving a mess in her grandmother’s sauerkraut crock for her father to find after she’d returned to school. But it wasn’t until her own children were school-age that she began to seriously consider wine, beer, and spirits as a viable career path.

“I’d founded a costume company that served a small, underfunded arts area for a professional dance company, and I did that for six years,” recalls Wicker. “Two kindergarten moms that were working in the tasting room at Simmons Winery outside of Columbus, Indiana, at the time said, ‘We don’t have enough people to harvest grapes. Are you interested in harvesting grapes?’ And they were both so much fun to be around, I said, ‘Sure, I’ll harvest grapes!’”

And as she made her way from helping out with a grape harvest to helming an international company’s programs, her career path was anything but a straight shot.

That was two decades ago. This past November, Wicker became the CEO and master distiller of Lyons Brewing and Distilling. The company’s main base is in Lexington, Kentucky, but it has a wide reach. Wicker oversees brewing and distilling for all of the affiliated Alltech Beverage brands, which includes Town Branch Distillery and Lexington Brewing in Kentucky, Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin, Ireland, and Dueling Barrels Brewery and Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. And as she made her way from helping out with a grape harvest to helming an international company’s programs, her career path was anything but a straight shot.

During that first harvest, Wicker realized that she really enjoyed being outdoors in the sunshine and doing physical work. After the harvest was over, she got a call from a friend who’d built a winery in nearby Brown County, Indiana, asking her to come work for him. “Three days in, in production, I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing,” Wicker says. “I got lucky and met Ellen Butz, a retired food science professor from Purdue, and she took me under her wing and mentored me along with the gentleman that taught me to make wine.”

After a few years of making wine in Indiana, Wicker was asked to help start a winery in Kentucky. “Kentucky has a very old wine tradition,” Wicker says. “Prior to Prohibition, it was one of the largest wine-producing states in the United States. The first commercial vineyard in the United States was planted on the Ohio River in Kentucky. Thomas Jefferson sent root stocks down the Ohio River, and so there were lots of places along the Ohio where they started planting wine grapes again. There was an attempt in Kentucky to move back to that tradition.”

While working at that winery in Kentucky, she met Steve and Paul Beam, who were in the process of building Limestone Branch Distillery just down the road. To this day, they all joke that Wicker had a winery license and no building, and Steve and Paul had a building but no DSP (distilled spirits plant) license.

Photo by Andrew Hyslop

Wicker started spending her free time at Limestone Branch. “We were each other’s extra set of hands,” says Wicker. “I started working with them in the evenings a lot. Then the family that was building the winery went through a divorce, and I knew the writing was on the wall. I booked a ticket to Sonoma and thought, ‘I’ll go to Sonoma and make arrangements to work a harvest out there, and then I’ll come back to Kentucky and regroup.’ Paul and Steve Beam took me to dinner 24 hours after I resigned from the winery, and hired me full-time at Limestone Branch.”

Wicker began racking up experience as a distiller. From Limestone Branch, after a short stint in South Carolina, she went to Huber’s Starlight Distillery, a pioneering craft distillery in Indiana, and then briefly back to another distillery in Kentucky before being hired as a distiller and distillery manager for Widow Jane in Brooklyn, where she was promoted to master distiller and president after a year. Making whiskey in New York, particularly in a heavily populated area like Brooklyn, presented a unique set of challenges, she says. “People are so surprised, they’re like, ‘You can make bourbon in New York? You can make bourbon in the city? How do you do that? How do you grow your corn?’ It was lots of education. Our blending program was strong. We’d done a lot of blending sessions in the evenings, all kinds of different education, whether it was for distributors or consumers.”

Even the basics of whiskey making were different in the city. “Logistics, logistics, logistics!” she says with a laugh. “You can pull the truck in here at Town Branch, you don’t have to stop everything, block the traffic, all hands on deck, and get the trucks unloaded. People can bring a truck full of barrels here and back it up to the loading dock and actually unload it, rather than calling everybody from every corner of the business to get out on the street and move all the barrels to the warehouse.”

On top of decades of work experience, Wicker also spent the last seven years as the distilling consultant for George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery in Virginia, participating in making several types of whiskey, rum, and peach brandy at a historical re-creation of Washington’s original distillery. “I got started with that when I was at Starlight, distilling for Ted Huber,” Wicker recalls.

She’d gone to Mount Vernon to tour the distillery, and a technical conversation about fermentation with an employee led to an invitation from the project’s director, Steve Bashore, to come help out. “I was distilling six days a week at the time at Starlight. I said, ‘Ted, I’d like to go out to Mount Vernon and take a whole weekend. Can you cover for me on a Saturday?’ And he said, ‘No, take four or five days. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to love it.’ Ted was so generous.”

For the last decade, Wicker has referred to herself as an “itinerant distiller,” a sort of multi-tool for solving distillery problems, honed by 20 years of winemaking and distilling all over the country.

For the last decade, Wicker has referred to herself as an “itinerant distiller,” a sort of multi-tool for solving distillery problems, honed by 20 years of winemaking and distilling all over the country. But the designation has a very specific meaning to her. “That means I’ll never own a distillery,” she says, laughing.

“There’ve been a lot of wonderful people who say, ‘Will you start this distillery with me?’ And I love learning and I love people, and my last project I’m really proud of, but I’ve checked all the boxes. Heaven Hill acquired Widow Jane in February a year ago, and that was on my list of things to accomplish. We won World’s Best Small Batch Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards then a month later. All of the things that I was supposed to accomplish, outside of completing the distillery for Widow Jane, I’ve completed. But I’d left it so that we had all of the engineering and the preliminary architecture done, and was able to hand that over to Heaven Hill and be confident that they were going to be happy.”

In the few months that Wicker’s been in her new position, her focus has been on touring all the Alltech Beverage Division facilities and learning about how each place operates. She’s visited Ireland to learn about the Pearse Lyons Distillery operation, and she’s looking forward to spending lots of time at Lexington Brewing and Distilling and Dueling Barrels to determine what needs to be done to raise the status of those operations.

Twenty years after her accidental entry into the drinks world, Wicker’s both reaching a new stage and looking forward to more adventures. “I’d love to catch up my education to match what I’ve been allowed to accomplish,” she says. “What’s next? I don’t know. I certainly feel the pull to be back in the cellar and warehouse every day, but I’ll stay open to what presents itself.”

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