15 Stars, a Columbus-created bourbon brand, wins best bourbon at New York Wine and Spirits competition

Republic file photo The local Johnson family that launched award-winning 15 Stars bourbon: daughter Annie, dad Rick and son Ricky.

A spirit of excellence.

That seems to be the most current and most fitting label for 15 Stars, just named best bourbon at the prestigious New York Wine and Spirits competition — and just featured in a sizable spread online in Forbes magazine.

The brand, created in April 2022 here in Columbus by Rick Johnson and adult children Rick and Annie Johnson, also is one of four finalists for Worldwide Whiskey Producer for 2023 at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.

The prize winning product will be released publicly for the first time Sept. 26.

“Kind of crazy, but it’s good bourbon,” Rick Johnson said of the blend of a 10- and 13-year-old-aged finished sherry cask.

An introductory 15 Stars launch story in The Republic nearly a year ago called the family’s related $279-per-bottle, 14-year-aged version of the 103-proof bourbon “a drink for the discriminating.” That product now is basically sold out, save for a few scattered bottles across the country.

For now, the alcohol distilled, blended and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, known as the Bourbon Capitol of the World, is available only in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, and Louisiana. Florida will be added soon.

In Columbus, the product is sold at the Cork Liquors, and sold by the glass at Henry’s Social Club, Harrison Lake Country Club, and Hotel Indigo.

The Johnsons figure it will be about two years before distribution goes nationwide. A vice president of sales, an industry veteran just added to the clan’s operation already is mapping plans for that.

Rick Johnson understands that some in the industry could be puzzled how such a relatively new product — one that the trio began researching May 2019 and later began blending and testing at Rick and wife Alice Johnson’s kitchen table — could be judged No. 1 so quickly. Last year, it was named No. 2 bourbon at the New York Wine and Spirits competition.

“For some, I’m sure maybe that that thought could have come to mind,” Rick Johnson said. “But among our producers and distillers, there’s some pretty good camaraderie, even in the midst of contest competition.

“But, yes, they might have said, ‘Hey — what’s going on over there (in Columbus)?’”

Plus, he always has maintained that the family financial investment has been less than one might imagine.

“While sourcing high-aged bourbons and distilling new-make whiskey requires inventory investment and our prior business success (in Johnson Ventures) helps us there, we have kept our capital investment quite low, as we outsource the production and storage and bottling to suppliers in Bardstown, Kentucky,” he said. “In other words, we have not had to build a distillery, build warehouses, or install bottling lines, keeping investment more reasonable.”

Plus, Rick Johnson mentioned that he and his family have the ability to selected aged inventory from different distillers for their products, unlike other producers limited to their own inventory.

“We’re able to get a wider variety of (recipe) expressions,” he said.

They were asked if they feel pressure to keep building substantially on their early success.

“There always will be pressure to make as good and as excellent a product as possible,” Ricky Johnson said.

For now, their next step is a simple and understandable one, according to Rick Johnson.

“We’ll just keep entering the competitions,” he said, “and producing good stuff.”

Right at the kitchen table.

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.