Skip Links

Whiskey By The Wave

A boater’s startup distillery taps nautical heritage to recapture the unique taste characteristics refined by rolling seas

Two men kneeling on the deck of a white boat next to a barrel of whiskey.

Kerry Shaw Brown (left) with cask loader Nick Heftrig

His family history is peppered with schooner captains, passenger ship skippers, and commercial fisherman, so it’s no surprise that Kerry Shaw Brown is drawn to the power and mystique of the Great Lakes. His father was an avid angler himself, and from the time he could walk, Brown was joining his dad on marine adventures in canoes, skiffs, and boats big and small. Water became an indispensable part of his soul, he says, inspiring, rejuvenating, and rebalancing his life.

A film director and creative consultant by trade, Brown has worked with a variety of commercial clients – including some of the country’s great distilleries. About six years ago he decided to start crafting his own bourbon blends. Once again, he turned to the water. Having studied the art and alchemy of crafting great whiskeys, Brown was especially curious about how spirits were transported in centuries past. Over four centuries of shipping by sea – across the ocean, lakes, and down rivers – a variety of whiskeys and rums had established unique characteristics that proved difficult to replicate on land.

Two men securing three barrels inside the cabin on a boat.

Cask loaders Clay Simczyk (left) and Nick Heftrig secure whiskey casks in the forward berth of a sportfishing boat.

While other distillers today age spirits on large ships, Brown wanted a process more comparable to the compact wooden ships of old to harness the ferocity and asymmetrical turbulence of waves. With that aggressive aging in mind, he sealed up small batches of bourbon in charred oak barrels and set them in a wooden 1920 vintage Thompson rowboat in his boathouse in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The waves went to work rocking the little boat back and forth for anywhere from two to five months, creating unique changes down to the molecular level. When he opened the casks of the first batches, the results were remarkable. Even his bourbon-loving friends said he was onto something good.

Brown mixed a second batch in larger aged casks and secured them in the bow of his Bayliner Element kept in his boathouse, occasionally heading out to drive around the bays, subjecting the casks to even more wave action.

As he continued to refine his blends and his approach, each batch got better and better. Word of Brown’s alchemy soon captured the attention of a few people who’d become his partners, including Martin Pazzani, a former marketing executive who had spent a career in the spirits business.

Large white vessel with several fisherman on the open waters at sunset.

This year their company, Unbound Spirits, released The Maelstrom – a name Brown says reflects both centuries of exploration and the powerful force of water. Customer response was so positive that Brown needed a bigger boat than the little Bayliner to age the whiskey.

A friend introduced him to captains Bret Cook and Troy Mattson who run the Wisconsin charter outfit Kinn’s Sport Fishing with a fleet of 10 sportfishing boats on Lake Michigan. The captains are whiskey lovers themselves and Brown landed himself another partnership.

Together they strapped the casks aboard the fleet of 35- to 38-footers and set off for months of turbulent bourbon shaping. During the day, temperatures in the boats could top 100 degrees, but when back in the harbor at night, the cold Lake Michigan water pulled the heat out quickly. That was the second benefit, Brown says. Not only was the wave action critical, but the speed of the temperature changes meant the oak casks were expanding and contracting much faster than in a rickhouse.

Adult male wearing a black stocking cap pulling a wheel barrel containing a whiskey barrel on a wooden dock.

Brown says much of the character of his bourbon blends comes from the unpredictable weather patterns on Lake Michigan – each front bringing a different dynamic, pulling different nuances out from the toasted and charred barrels. Because of that, Unbound Spirits marks each new batch with a name based on something happening when the bourbon goes on the boats. Batch No. 2 is called The Aurora batch because it was put on the boats the same day as a spectacular Northern Lights display erupted across the sky.

Related Articles


Click to explore related articles

lifestyle food drink and entertainment people


Dan Armitage

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A full-time travel and outdoors writer based in Ohio, Dan is in his 20th season hosting the popular syndicated radio show Buckeye Sportsman. He gets around on a pontoon boat and an Aquasport center-console, which he uses for all his DIY editorial projects and fishing features. A USCG Captain (Master 50-ton), he’s a popular speaker at boat and sport shows.