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Aged on the Water

By: Stephen M. Vest

In Mark Twain’s imagination, Huckleberry Finn and Jim passed through “the confluence” in a fog, missing the turn that led to Cairo, Illinois, and possible freedom. Instead, they headed south, past the Ballard County location where Hank Ingram, some 160 years later, ages his O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey.

“We’re located near where these two mighty rivers—the Ohio and Mississippi—come together, and the river is at the center of what we do and who we are,” Ingram said. He has bet his future on the unpredictable elements of nature to shape his product into something worthwhile. “The river brings its own elements to this enterprise.”

Ingram knows something of the river. His family has been in the barge business for five generations, and his floating rickhouse is housed in one of his family’s barges. What makes his whiskey—and eventually bourbon—unique is that it is constantly agitated by the Mighty Mississippi. The river level rises from 14.4 feet in the winter to more than 40 feet in the spring—this happens again and again and again.

“The whiskey inside our barrels is constantly churning, exposing more liquid to the surface of the barrel, where it extracts more flavor from the wood,” Ingram explained.

The dramatic swing in temperature is vital. During the day, the heat inside the rickhouse can easily reach 120 degrees. At night, it can drop into the 40s. The heat causes the wood to expand, and overnight, it contracts, squeezing flavor out of the wood and into the barrel. Couple that with the humidity, which Ingram believes cuts down on evaporation and builds a consistency some might compare to molasses.

“Our whiskey barrels are exposed to the constant rise and fall of the river. When coupled with the river’s climate of humidity and its temperature swings, our whiskey literally never stops working,” Ingram said. “We call it barrel-aged and river raised.”

Based in Nashville, the Ingram entrepreneurial dynasty began with the Empire Lumber Company founded by Hank’s third great-great-grandfather, Orrin Henry Ingram. In 1946, Hank’s great-grandfather started the Ingram Barge Company, which morphed into a distribution company, which, at one point, handled Kentucky Monthly magazine and other periodicals and books across the South. 

Hank’s corporate identity, Brown Water Spirits, brings together five generations of the family business into one enterprise—an idea he came up with while earning his master of business administration degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. 

Hank, a fan of fine whiskey, is not a distiller. He leaves that part of the business to Owensboro’s Green River Distilling. The aging and distribution network, which stretches across Kentucky and Tennessee, is where he focuses his efforts. 

“Our success is built on an affinity for the river and river traffic,” said Ingram. His next target market is Louisiana—where barges strike a romanticized reaction similar to trains in the Midwest.

People have harnessed the immense power of the Mississippi as it flows down to the Gulf of Mexico for centuries. “The river is the lifeblood of its people and how many provide for their families,” Ingram said. “Simply put, it’s a way of life here.” 

For more information, visit ohingram.wpengine.com.