Bryan Smith prepared for his role as Hard Truth Distilling Co. master distiller and co-partner by sitting on a kitchen counter in Evansville, Indiana, taste testing for his grandma, Ponselle Smith.
“I was her little buddy,” Smith says. “I was getting palate development.”
“He’s a super taster,” Jeff McCabe, executive chairman of Hard Truth Distilling Co.’s umbrella company, BWQOHT Inc., tells visitors.
Pretty much everything in Smith’s upbringing contributed to becoming a master distiller. The product of Dutch and German immigrants settling in Southern Indiana who passed on their passion and recipes for making sausage, beer and whiskey, the William Henry Harrison High School graduate inherited a healthy curiosity for how these things are made. According to Smith, it is the scientific and creative process behind shaping the flavor of a great whiskey that drives him today.
Smith is the first and only Master Distiller at Hard Truth Distilling Co. since the company’s inception in 2015. He oversees Hard Truth’s diverse product portfolio and a distillery that is currently amid a major expansion.
Set on 325 wooded acres in beautiful Brown County, Indiana, Hard Truth is adding its second rackhouse and three new 5,000-gallon fermenters to its current 2,500-gallon fermenters, allowing the distillery to increase its current production rate by more than 800 percent.
“We’re investing in both immediate and long-term growth,” Smith said. “I couldn’t be more excited to see us operating at full capacity.”
Smith wears many hats at the distillery on top of his primary role. From hands-on spirit production, quality assurance, and product development to marketing strategies and public appearances, Smith cares for Hard Truth’s standout products at nearly every stage of production before they hit the shelves.
“It’s how we work at Hard Truth,” Smith said. “It’s very much a team approach with all of us taking an active role in multiple parts of the business.”
Right from the start
While unaware of his future destination along the journey, Smith was set on a predetermined path to become a distiller. At a young age, he spent countless hours cooking with his father’s mother, Ponselle, developing new recipes and deconstructing centuries old family recipes. He was told stories of great-grandfathers on both sides of his family making whiskey, mostly for friends and family. As he got older, he often joined his father, Bruce, and his best buddy making farmer’s wine aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels in the fall and fresh sausage as winter approached, using techniques passed down from generations past.
The strong presence of culinary influences in his life and intense curiosity inspired by his mother, Jan Smith, a lifelong educator, led him to explore how to identify and shape complex flavor profiles in food. Smith built on that foundation of curiosity in college through biology and chemistry coursework, ultimately graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. During this time, he gained a reputation for hosting parties where he would prepare memorable eats and kegs of home-brew beer for friends and family. Later in life, connected with an opportunity through a mutual friend, Smith joined Quaff ON! Brewing Co. – part of the Hard Truth family – in 2015 right as the company obtained its distilling license. And ever since that moment, he has been a relentless student of the craft of whiskey making.
Smith credits a few key people in the bourbon whiskey world for giving him practical distilling experience and teaching him the core principles of the profession, including methodology, quality assurance, distilling efficacy, and how to foster tradition. He spent countless hours in distilleries in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee taking reams of notes on mashing, fermentation, and distillation as well as tasting hundreds of whiskeys in their rickhouses, forming a palate that he trusts today.
“I learned how to taste whiskey like a distiller and blender, not like a whiskey enthusiast,” Smith says. “And over this period of time, the philosophies that would guide my career began to take shape.”
Perhaps the most formative moment in Smith’s career, and the key turning point in the development of Hard Truth Distilling, was a chance meeting with Shane Baker and Dr. Pat Heist from Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville, Kentucky, and the subsequent decision to pursue sweet mash, not sour mash, for its line of whiskeys. It was a team decision based on endless hours of testing and tasting, a process that Smith said was one of the most rewarding in this life.
“Tasting a 2-year-old sweet mash whiskey straight from the barrel with Shane and Pat was definitely a game changing moment,” Smith said.
Though the process is more labor intensive, meticulous, and costly than sour mashing, the result led Hard Truth to the release of one of their most revered products — the Sweet Mash Rye Whiskey.
Hard Truth’s first batch of Sweet Mash Rye Whiskey was named in the top 50 of Fred Minnick’s Top 100 American Whiskeys of 2021, and since then has taken home a gold medal in USA Spirits awards, double platinum medal in the Ascots, and earned two 93 ratings in other tasting competitions. The designation given to Hard Truth’s Sweet Mash Rye Whiskey batch was unprecedented since it is the first batch to hit the market.
Sweet mashing results in whiskeys that are softer and have a more complex palate. Distinguishing Hard Truth’s offerings from other brands has left Smith with great pride and excitement for what is on the horizon for the distillery.
“There is a small, but mighty group of distillers making sweet mash whiskey and celebrating this innovative way of making whiskey, and I feel honored and proud to be in such great company,” he says.
Creating a diverse portfolio
Smith uses the same process for making vodka, gin, and rum that he does for whiskey.
“The passion and approach are the same no matter the spirit,” he says. “We begin each project with the goal of creating a spirit that is able to differentiate itself with quality, complexity and balance.”
Beyond whiskey, Hard Truth is seeing success in its line of creams including Maple Bourbon Cream and Toasted Coconut Rum Cream. Wine Enthusiast scored Toasted Coconut Rum Cream a 95 on its list of Top 100 Spirits for 2020.
“We didn’t create the creams category, but we are now one of the category’s innovators thanks to these innovative flavors,” Smith said. Both products are in high demand. One major retailer recently actually asked for Hard Truth’s entire run of Maple Bourbon Cream.
Smith said he realizes now that all his life’s experiences prepared him with the sensory skills and scientific knowledge necessary to shape flavors in spirits. Connecting with some extraordinarily successful entrepreneurs at the birth of Hard Truth Distilling Co. provided him the opportunity to put these skills into action.
“We’re currently beginning our eighth year at Hard Truth, and we already have more than 20 award-winning spirits in the market including our celebrated Sweet Mash whiskeys, an expansive and growing distillery and the most talented group of hard-working people anywhere, making it happen,” Smith said.
A hands-on practitioner, Smith said while public-facing responsibilities have him traveling sporadically for the business, most of his time is spent on the grounds of Hard Truth evaluating, blending, and perfecting its current spirits as well as exploring the development of new offerings. When he is not in “spirit world” you can find Bryan enjoying time with his wife and twin daughters, partaking in his girls’ school events, cooking for the family, and occasionally you will find him on a lake or stream fishing with his father and friends.
We asked Smith two questions about local food and drink.
EL: What are your favorite go-to foods or places when you visit your hometown?
Smith: Typically, my trips home are short and focused, and I tend to stick to sentimental childhood classics: Yen Ching for lunch, Hacienda for a mug margarita, or if I want pizza, Steve’s Una Pizza or Turoni’s. I learned as I’ve traveled that outside of Chicago tavern-style pizza, the Evansville thin-crust pizza I grew up eating is not easy to find.
EL: Where do you go for Hard Truth spirits in Evansville?
Smith: If I’m looking for a good pour of a Hard Truth whiskey or a great cocktail using our spirits in Evansville, I’ll typically stop in at Mo’s House for a Vieux Carre (a New Orleans cocktail dating back to the 1930s) with our Sweet Mash Rye, go across the street to Sauced for dinner, then come back to Mo’s for a Momma’s Coconut Pie cocktail using our Toasted Coconut Rum. Rounders Too on North Green River Road has a couple outstanding barrel picks of our whiskeys that are perfect for a neat pour as well. Or, to pick up a bottle, you can find Hard Truth at many retailers throughout the city.
About Hard Truth Distilling Co.
Headquartered in Nashville, Indiana, Hard Truth Distilling Co. produces more than 20 premium spirits, including critically acclaimed Hard Truth Sweet Mash Rye Whiskey and top-selling Hard Truth Cinnamon Vodka, Hard Truth Toasted Coconut Rum, Hard Truth Toasted Coconut Rum Cream and Maple Bourbon Cream.
Hard Truth’s 39 branded spirits are distributed throughout 21 states, including Indiana and Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, with several new states coming on board in 2023.
Founded in 2015, Hard Truth Distilling Co. quickly outgrew its original production facility, and, by 2017, construction had begun on its current facility, a distillery housed in a 50,000-square- foot building equipped with a state-of-the-art Vendome Copper & Brass distilling system. Hard Truth’s destination campus spans 325 wooded acres in Brown County, Indiana — an artists’ colony and tourist destination known for its natural beauty.