MB Roland Distillery
Pembroke, KY

Crafting a State of Mind in Bourbon Country

Paul Tomaszewski planned on opening a distillery after his career in the U.S. Army came to an end.  He knew it would happen eventually, perhaps after a few years.  Fate wanted him to start a little sooner.  Almost as soon as he and his wife began looking for the future home of the MB Roland Distillery, the rare opportunity to purchase an Amish dairy in Pembroke, KY presented itself.  Suddenly, the couple went from pining for a few acres to figuring out how they would manage 100 acres.  With space not an issue, Paul got to work making his own signature bourbon.  He is in Kentucky after all.

The craft distilling movement had barely begun when the MB Roland Distillery opened in 2009.  It certainly had not come to rural Kentucky.  As Paul says, "It was the stone age."   Obviously, there are advantages to being in the same state as the largest bourbon manufacturers in the U.S.  The Kentucky authorities knew how to process a distillery permit, but they only knew it in the context of a massive facility.  How did Paul handle the paperwork designed for massive, global brands?  He put his military precision to work.  He recalls the compliment that a federal official gave him, "This is the best application I've ever seen before."  Paul makes it clear that it was easy to work with the state and federal officials.  The complication, for him, was making authorities aware that one could be a small bourbon producer and that a craft application would look different than all others they had received.  His early trailblazing paid off.  As of 2014, Kentucky has a new license for craft producers, lowering the fee for small producers, and allowing expanded on-site sales.  It is amazing what can be done in 5 years given enough interest and taxable revenue.

The paperwork was a learning experience for all involved.  However, once MB Roland opened its doors, the public treated it as a breath of fresh air.  For consumers, the distillery was a unique destination from other stops along the well-known Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  MB Roland is uniquely situated close to the big bourbon distilleries that make Kentucky famous and also next to the Tennessee border - home of Jack Daniels (among other whiskey makers).  It was more than just a convenient location that made MB Roland a destination for bourbon seekers.  Paul credits the closeness of the bourbon community in Kentucky.  With the support of producers large and small, the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail was born to put smaller producers like Paul on the map.  

Closeness among producers has also created an invaluable information network of bourbon producers.  Now, if Paul has an industry question, he can reach out to one of his craft colleagues to see if they have an answer.  The distilleries of Kentucky understand that, if the small, unique producers are going to survive, the entire Kentucky craft industry must survive.  

What does MB Roland actually make?  Again, it is in Kentucky, so a bourbon is all but required.  However, another bourbon in Kentucky could be like another drop of water in the ocean.  Paul knows that his distillery needs to separate itself from all the rest.  When he isn’t distilling and barreling his bourbon, he is making a full line of award-winning moonshines.  As he sees it, he needs to make something while his bourbon is aging and it might as well be fantastic.  

Paul says that running a successful craft operation is all about having the right state of mind.  Craft can mean whatever a marketer wants it to mean.  To Paul, it means being honest about what he produces and what he tells the public.  If he says his bourbon is handmade, it had better be handmade.  He knows people can see beyond hype and spin.  What the world wants is authenticity.  What Paul has learned from his five years in the craft bourbon industry is that it takes more than just a superior product, it takes a sales plan and a marketing roadmap.  He knew that he couldn't just open a distillery, make bourbon, let it age for two years (or more) and then start selling it.  He is running a business.  So, he made a plan: make a high-quality bourbon, but also make high quality unaged spirits in the interim.  He has lived by his plan and the lights have stayed on.  His aged bourbon has been released, and now he can start planning for the future.  His future is in an ever-growing barrel house and his present is in a pretty good position.  

Paul is aware that MB Roland is a business, not just a distillery.  To keep it open and growing, he executes on his business plan and stays true to his mission statement.  First, he only makes products he likes.  For example, he doesn't make gin because he doesn't drink gin.  Second, he seeks constant feedback.  If his staff doesn’t like a new creation, it doesn't get made.  Third, he relies on the history of his region.  For example, he ferments his mash in an open top fermenter.  Why? Because that's how it is done in Kentucky.  His flavored moonshines also evoke the history of the area.  One of MB Roland's unique spirits is its Black Dog whiskey.  This is an unaged corn spirit whose roots are in the tobacco farms of Kentucky.  Just like tobacco leaves used to be smoked before being rolled into cigarettes, MB Roland smokes the corn that goes into their Black Dog.  The result is an unaged spirit with the smokiness of a Scotch-style whiskey.  The distillery also relies on the agricultural history of its surroundings.  Paul likes to point out that his is a "grain to glass" operation, even if he is not the farmer.  Paul knows distilling.  He works with local farmers who know how to grow the best corn and wheat in Kentucky.  He tries to source as much of his grains as possible from local farms.  His malted barley and rye, however, come from the upper Mid-West.  Kentucky does not grow much of those crops.  Finally, he uses the strength of his bourbon's popularity to bring people into his tasting room and explore his other products.  Looking at his tasting room, one quickly notices all of the colorful, naturally flavored unaged spirits that MB Roland produces.  His bourbon should please the biggest aficionados, but his liquor portfolio means everyone can find at least one bottle to take home.  Today, his bourbons sell out almost immediately and his tasting room can have people lined up before it opens to get a taste of what his distillery is bottling.  To Paul, his success is not only due to his commitment to quality, but also his execution of a well-defined mission statement and marketing plan.  

Paul now realizes that his experience in founding MB Roland in the "Dark Ages" of craft distilling is of great value to newcomers.  He used to have an open-door policy if someone wanted to ask him about opening a new craft distillery.  A victim of his own success, he now runs a formal educational program for aspiring distillers.  He just had too many people stopping by and asking him for help.  In only five years, he's gone from the man with the immaculate application to the experienced vet that everyone expects to have all the answers.  Like everything else at MB Roland, perhaps this evolution was all part of his plan. 

To learn more about MB Roland and its spirits visit its website at http://www.mbrdistillery.com/