Neeley Family Distillery was eleven generations in the making. The family intersected with distilling history in 1740 when Irish immigrant James Neeley started making whiskey in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Centuries later, his eleventh great-grandson continues the legacy using the same recipes––this time legally.
Located in Sparta, Kentucky, just 200 yards from the Kentucky Speedway, Royce and his father, Roy hand-built the distillery from the ground up. Royce, the lead distiller, says that he and his father started the business after he left college in 2015.
“I hit the ground running. I already had old family recipes and recipes I’ve worked on myself, so we got her open,” says Royce. “My dad built the entire distillery, and we got on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail officially in 2019.”
The Neeley family has distilled both illegally and legally for centuries. Royce says his family has been involved in killings and served jail time over moonshine territory and bootlegging. Bringing that history full circle by opening a legal, award-winning distillery has been gratifying.
“Honestly, it couldn’t be going any better for us,” says Royce. “It’s something the family can be really of. Now it’s out in the open. Before we had to hide everything. It’s something we celebrate and tell everyone about as we move forward to come out with new products.”
One of those products is the distillery’s recently-released Old Jett Brothers Bourbon, which was named after Jett Bro. Distilling Company, a one-time brand located in Carrollton, Kentucky, just 10 miles from Neeley Family Distillery. Royce describes Old Jett as being lost to time, having gone under due to Prohibition.
Neeley Family Distillery approaches making spirits the old-school way: using a pot still, cypress fermenters, sweet mash, local grains, low-barrel entry and, of course, Kentucky’s limestone water.
“These are all things that were done pre-prohibition,” says Royce. “A lot of people say, ‘We make whiskey the old way.’ Well, I actually do make whiskey the old way and my product reflects that and shows it. And that’s why we’re winning so many awards.”
Some of those awards include gold and double gold for their Kentucky Single Barrel Straight Bourbon at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (multiple years in a row); and double gold in 2021 and 2022 for their Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Absinthe, aptly named Fear and Loathing in Kentucky. Their R.R. Neeley Sweet Thumped Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey also received a gold award in 2022 at the World Spirits Competition.
Their absinthe is created from an 1871 Old World Swine-style recipe that uses eight different botanicals, including wormwood, fennel and two anise varieties. Royce says it’s one of his personal favorites. To make the spirit, they use an 1890s French absinthe still; according to Royce, it’s the only of its kind located in North America in use.
Moonshine lovers will also find much to sip at Neeley Family Distillery. They sell 10 varieties, including fun flavors like apple pie, peach cobbler and orange creamsicle. Royce is loyal to what his great-grandfather created back in the early 1900s, down to using Domino Sugar and the same yeast strain of their forebears. To get the yeast, he makes the two-and-a-half-hour commute from Sparta to Owsley County, Kentucky, where his family is originally from.
“You also see with us, too, which I guess is unique today, is that our family works here,” says Royce. “My mom, dad, my wife, me and grandfather. There are three generations of Neeleys in here at any given time.”
For $20, tours include colorful stories from the Neeley family history and a walk-through of their operations. Following the tour, guests can enjoy a guided tasting through eight of the distillery’s products. Walk-ins are welcome, however, parties of 10 or more must call ahead.
“We’re going to show you the family history,” says Royce. “You’re going to see all the heirlooms: the old guns and stills my family used. It’s really in detail. Then we’ll take you on that tour and show you, ‘Hey, this is why we use cypress fermenters. This is why we pot distill.’”
When available, Royce also says guests can get a taste of their sweet mash and whiskey right off the still. For $40, you can also bottle your own single-barrel bourbon.
“My grandfather could not read or write,” says Royce. “But he knew how to triple pot distill. And that tells you how things are passed down from father to son.”