Celebrating their 25th anniversary, the French Lick Winery looks not only to the future but also to their South Indiana roots where history and heritage are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life.
For Kim Doty, who with her husband John, started the winery in 1995, it all goes back to the farm, now designated as a Hoosier Homestead Farm, founded by her great, great grandfather 133 years ago.
For over a century the family raised soybeans, cattle, and hogs on the farm which is located in Martin County.
That changed when John suggested they grow grapes to sell to other wineries.
“Dave Schrodt from Brown County Winery told us if you’re going to grow grapes you might as well open a winery,” says Kim, who earned a degree in horticulture from Purdue University.
Doty laughs when she says this, noting how outlandish that sounds looking back given they were working fulltime. They also were parents of two young sons, Aaron and Nick and she didn’t know anything about making wine.
Luckily, John, a Purdue grad with a degree in Agricultural Economics – Farm and Business Management had wine making skills that went much further back to around age 12 when he fermented Concord grapes (think Welch’s Grape Juice) and blackberries in a crock.
“We didn’t even use a press,” Doty says. “After they fermented, we drained them through cheesecloth.”
He also made wine in the home’s basement.
With their deep roots in the soil, they planted eight acres of grapes including one of the first Norton grapes planted in the state on one of the highest points in the county. Down below, the lushly beautiful east fork of the White River inspired the name Heaven’s View Vineyard.
Seven years later they opened the French Lick Winery inside the historic Beechwood Mansion in West Baden Springs, a small hamlet practically right across the street from French Lick.
Working Round the Clock.
“We were making 400 gallons of wine, which we bottled in the basement and then carried case by case upstairs to the tasting room,” says Kim, noting that at first, they didn’t quit their day jobs, so they often were working late into the night. “Now we have 6000-gallon tanks, there are 100 wineries, and we have 30 types of wine.”
In 2004, needing more room, the winery moved into a sprawling former piano factory.
“I was thinking, when we moved into the Kimball building about serving simple cold sandwiches, a soup of the day, and charcuterie,” says Kim.
It didn’t happen that way. Like everything about the winery, it grew into something bigger. Now, the Vintage Café is a full-service restaurant serving freshly made Italian food.
Several years ago, the family decided to take the business one step forward or should we say back into the past by opening Spirits of French Lick, a distillery that creates pre-Prohibition style bourbons, botanicals spirits, brandy, and American whiskey in the largest pot-still distillery in the state. Under Master Distiller Alan Bishop, their distillation methods are consistent with its historical counterparts.
Their artisan spirits are so exceptional that bestselling author and bourbon curator Fred Minnick, who has 2 million podcast followers and is described by the New York Times as one of the “Top Whiskey Writers” in the country, named the Spirits Of French Lick Lee Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon as his top pick for Best Non- Kentucky Bourbon of 2020.
Indiana’s Black Forest
In an interesting but little know fact aspect of Indiana’s distilling history, many of the Germans who settled here came from the Black Forest area of Germany where small family distillers made spirits from the fruit they grew. Bringing this tradition with them, distilling in the region most likely dates back to before 1806 and continued to grow through the decades.
Farmers, planting 150,000 apple trees in each of a six-county area known as Indiana’s Black Forest, harvested the fruit to make apple brandy. Bishop’s research shows there were more than 155 documented legal distilleries in the Black Forest, as well as illegal ones too. In all they produced not only the most apple brandy in the world at the time but also the best.
Spirits of French Lick honors the heritage of Indiana’s Black Forest in their single-pass Calvados-style Old Clifty Apple Brandy.
Always Family: The Next Generation
It was a family business from the beginning. Starting at a very young age, Aaron and his younger brother Nick worked along with their parents in every step of the process from vine to wine. They were taught how to plant, nurture, trim, and harvest grapes as well as bottle and cork wines by hand. They hand wrote the labels that went on the bottles. They were an integral part of decision making and so in 2020, Nick and Aaron were ready to step up to run the business after John and Kim took a step back towards retirement.
Under their stewardship, Aaron and Nick have expanded distribution into three new states and are currently introducing a new set of wines called The Winemaker’s Cut. Semi-Dry fruit wines, made the way Nick enjoys them. Joining the team and the family is Nick’s wife, Laurelin Doty, the winery’s Director of Operations.
“It’s very gratifying and rewarding knowing that they’re running things.” says Kim.
Nick and Aaron represent the sixth generation of family to run the farm. If any or all of Nick and Laurelin’s three young daughters follow the family tradition, one day there will be a seventh.
For more information visit: frenchlickwinery.com