Pouring on the success: New bourbon from local family already showing proof of excellence

Some people launch a business from their garage. Rick Johnson and his adult children have launched one literally from his Columbus kitchen table, which sometimes can get a bit messy amid their work.

“My wife hates that part,” he said, joking about spouse Alice, who is actually very supportive. “It’s not uncommon for us to hear, ‘It’s time to clean the kitchen.’”

Some day in the next few years, though, Johnson hopes his and son Ricky and daughter Annie’s new product will be putting bread on that table.

So it is for 15 Stars Bourbon, a whiskey that, at $279 per bottle for the 14-year-aged version of spirits, has in only eight months established itself as a drink for the discriminating. For now, the alcohol distilled, blended and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, known as the Bourbon Capitol of the World, is available only in Indiana (the Cork Liquors and Henry Social Club locally), Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Johnsons figure it will be three to four years before distribution goes nationwide. But for the local umbrella business of Johnson Ventures, currently known for its Midwestern-grown, heirloom, black kernel Black Jewell popcorn, taking big chances means a better shot at toasting big success.

“There are absolutely no un-risky businesses today,” Johnson said.

He mentioned that the recent surge in craft beer and distilling made this a kind of perfect time to enter the industry.

So, every so often, dad and son trek down Interstate 65 south to Bardstown Bourbon Company, where the family’s kitchen table trial-and-error magic is converted into the actual product. Annie concerns herself mostly with the black kernel and red, white, and blue kernel popcorn that will soon be used in some variations of the bourbon. Interestingly, popcorn is used in fewer than one quarter of 1 percent of bourbon makers use.

“That really will set it apart,” Annie Johnson said. “It’s got a richer flavor and a crunchy, crispy little texture. And we’re finding (in testing) that the flavor of the corn really does come through in bourbon.”

Such innovation hardly means the path to sales has been simple.

“It really has taken a lot of work,” Rick Johnson said, referring to research and more since May 2019.

Son Ricky, a recent Indiana University graduate who studied marketing and entrepreneurship, acknowledged “that nothing really completely prepared me for this industry.”

Too, nothing really prepared him for 15 Stars all-star success, including glowing mentions in publications such as Forbes magazine and the Robb Report magazine that focuses on luxury.

“That’s about the best attention you can get,” Rick Johnson said.

So no wonder the family trio was surprised to learn that the limited edition, 14-year, 103-proof whiskey was named among three finalists for straight bourbon in the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco earlier this year.

Another soon-to-be released version of 15 Stars was rated No. 2 in the straight bourbon category at the New York International Spirits Competition.

“We don’t explain that (quick success),” Rick Johnson said. “We just enjoy it. But we’ve got behind us a small group of people who have been in this business a long time — really a lifetime, actually.”

Actually, the product process includes “distilling very different grains and mash bills, and also sourcing really high quality aged bourbons,” as Rick Johnson put it. “And then we find those individual bourbons that we can blend which complement each other and add extra complexity, depth and interest to the whiskey, and then finally we take the best blends and flavor-proof them for the optimal taste.”

A few moments after speaking of the success that has surprised even them, the three drank to their accomplishments at the end of a recent interview, while hospitably sharing the product with others, in the Johnson Ventures office on Washington Street.

Warren Scheidt, owner of The Cork Liquors in Columbus, a longtime Johnson family friend, is aware of their success. He even gave them guidance on Indiana distributors. Currently, most of their products are selling out at the two locations where he is stocking them in Columbus (the bourbon also is on the menu at Henry Social Club and at Harrison Lake Country Club). They also are selling well at The Cork in two Shelbyville locations and at one Seymour location.

“That’s a good problem that we don’t mind having,” Scheidt said.

About the name

The name of 15 Stars Bourbon, blended, distilled and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, hearkens to the fact that the Commonwealth became the nation’s 15th State in 1795 and the United States flag at the time featured 15 stars.