Lucky Bucket distills its newest creations

Jason Payne, left, founder and president of Lucky Bucket Brewery, and Mike Cunningham, director of operations and head distiller, take a sample of their Cut Spike whiskey from the aging barrels.

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In the corner of the tasting room at the Lucky Bucket Brewery, the first batch of Cut Spike whiskey is aging, just as it has been for the past two years.

Over the course of the next few days, it will be bottled and labeled, and those labels hand-signed and numbered.

The week of Aug. 12, 70 bottles will be released to a distributor. On Aug. 14, 70 more bottles will be available for purchase in the Lucky Bucket Brewery tasting room, just inside the brewery/distillery at 11941 Centennial Road in La Vista.

Since Lucky Bucket's founders first began brewing beer in 2008, they planned to open a distillery, said Lucky Bucket President Jason Payne. They made some early batches of whiskey, as well as some vodka and rum, which they planned to sell and market under the name Solas. But very quickly, the beer became the focus.

“It kind of took off on us,” Payne said.

And as beer took off, whiskey and other spirits fell by the wayside. They were available in the Lucky Bucket tasting room but never made it to mainstream distribution.

That is until 2011, when they distilled enough wash — a mixture of crushed malted barley and barley — to fill around 35 barrels. As the whiskey aged, Payne and his colleagues got ready to sell it.

They changed the distillery's name from Solas to Cut Spike — an old railroad term — which they thought better captured their American-style whiskey and better complemented the name “Lucky Bucket.” They designed a somewhat old-timey, letter-press label and prepared for the whiskey's release.

They are, so far as Payne knows, one of the only micro-distilleries in the region that does the entire distilling process (more on that in a minute) on-site. In part, he said, the process is expensive — it takes about 1,500 pounds of malted barley to make a single barrel of whiskey.

“It's not the biggest yield,” Payne said.

It's also time-intensive, because the whiskey has to sit for years before it's ready to sell.

Since the first batch was relatively small, 140 bottles of the smooth, slightly vanilla-hinted whiskey — which will retail for $54.99 per 750-milliliter-ounce bottle — will be released each month until the next batch is ready in November 2014. By January 2015, Payne expects Cut Spike to produce around 4,000 bottles of whiskey per month. They'll also roll out a Cut Spike vodka in September and a Cut Spike rum around the holidays, Payne said.

After I chatted with Payne about the whiskey, Lucky Bucket/Cut Spike director of operations and head distiller Mike Cunningham walked me through the process of turning malted barley into whiskey. Here's how it works:

In the beginning, malted barley is run through a mill and cracked, and then transferred to a huge container called a mash tun, where it spends 90 minutes steeping in hot water — a process that helps extract the sugar from the grain. Next up, the liquid is transferred to another vessel called a brew kettle, where it's boiled for 30 minutes to sterilize it. After the liquid cools, it's transferred to yet another tank, a 1,000-gallon fermentation vessel, where it sits for a week. Yeast is added, which eats the sugar and produces alcohol, and the liquid is cooked down and concentrated.

After its week in the fermentation tank, the liquid is transferred yet again, this time to 500-gallon pot still, where the alcohol is further condensed. After spending six hours in the pot still, the condensed alcohol is moved to a 300-gallon spirit still, where it spends another 14 hours condensing. During this part of the process, the more potent, more toxic and less tasty alcohols are collected and set aside and the best part — known as “the heart” — of the alcohol is collected into barrels, where it will spend the next two years.

By contrast, Payne said, beer takes about two to four weeks to ferment.

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