This doctor left medicine to start a Kentucky bourbon company. Her second spirit just dropped

Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.
Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.

Juliet Schmalz left a 16-year career as an anesthesiologist to start a bourbon company.

Since she founded Fortune's Fool in 2019, she’s put two rye whiskeys on retail shelves. Her first release, The Prelude, was a 10-barrel dump that had aged for two years and eight months. The second, The Overture, was a 30-barrel dump from the same distillation that aged seven months longer.

The brand is named for a line from William Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," which in turn, nods to her first name. Going forward, all of her spirits will fit into a theatrical theme.

In a way, it's doubly fitting. Distilling is the second act of her professional life.

Initially, Schmalz considered building her a distillery, but she opted for a contract distilling approach through Bluegrass Distillers in Midway, Kentucky. So often, young distilleries have to put their energy into vodka or gin to help pay the bills while the first bourbon ages. Instead, she wanted to focus on the bourbon. Using contract distilling, she could avoid the overhead cost and learn from professional distillers while maintaining control over her product.

Bluegrass Distillers, which is building a new facility in Midway, handles the distilling and storage, and Castle & Key near Frankfort blends and bottles her spirits. The contract distilling movement is more than a century old, but has grown alongside the Kentucky bourbon boom over the past 15 years, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. He pointed to the upcoming Eastern Light Distilling complex in Morehead, specifically designed as a resource for smaller bourbon producers.

Several association members, such as Bardstown Bourbon Company and Hartfield and Co., also do contract distilling on the side of their normal production.

"There are a lot of small craft distilleries in the country that probably got their start in contract distilling," Gregory said. "It’s a growing part of our industry, and it’s a good entry point for distillers looking to get off the ground."

Fortune's Fool whiskey company is named for a line in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The brand currently has two rye whiskey's on retail shelves and a bourbon is slated to launch in October.
Fortune's Fool whiskey company is named for a line in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The brand currently has two rye whiskey's on retail shelves and a bourbon is slated to launch in October.

Contract distilling creates an opportunity for novices in the industry to try their hand at bourbon-making without the investment of building their distillery. It creates the opportunity for entrepreneurs like Schmalz to leap a career unrelated to distilling into the bourbon scene.

So the Courier Journal sat down with Schmalz to learn more about how she made the shift from a life in medicine to creating a whiskey brand.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Courier Journal: Why did you decide to walk away from medicine?

Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.
Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.

Juliet Schmalz: There are a multitude of reasons. I think the general population understands that medicine has become very difficult for physicians, nurses, and people who work in medicine. It's a big business, so that has been problematic for everyone across the board. On a more personal level, I struggled with my job, specifically, I struggled with the idea of moving and starting over somewhere. You kind of feel like you have to stay, and I didn't want to stay.

Personally, (medicine) just doesn't fit my personality the way I thought it would. There's a day-to-day moral injury that a lot of us are saying is happening because things aren’t able to be managed in the ways that we feel it should be managed.

It kept building up, and I did a lot of mental gymnastics, trying to figure out a way to stay in, and I did (stay in) for almost 16 years, but it was to my own personal detriment. I needed to do something different. I just had to find that, and I've spent many of those years trying to find it.

Courier Journal: So you decided to try distilling and went to Moonshine University in Louisville. What was that experience like?

Schmalz: I was signing up for classes, taking vacation from my job, and coming down here. To me, it was vacation. Yes, I'm sitting in a classroom all day, but it was very fun, very new and exciting, and very collaborative. It just scratched an itch, and I thought the industry seemed like it was something that I wanted to be a part of.

After the six-day distilling class, I just knew (I wanted to be in distilling). We went from literally grinding the grains on day one to doing our final distillation and putting it in a barrel for a little bit of time. Tasting the product at the end reminded me of baking for people or cooking for people. You're making something, and then you want to give it to someone and have them enjoy it.

Courier Journal: Are there any crossovers between your two careers?

Fortune's Fool whiskey company is named for a line in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The brand currently has two rye whiskey's on retail shelves and a bourbon is slated to launch in October.
Fortune's Fool whiskey company is named for a line in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The brand currently has two rye whiskey's on retail shelves and a bourbon is slated to launch in October.

Schmalz: Jokingly, they sometimes call anesthesiologists the world's most expensive bartender. So in a way, I’m relaxing people or giving them a drug for a different reason. That's a little bit of a joke, but I definitely have taken my need for quality into this, where we don't do something unless it means it's going to make a better product for us.

Some of that comes from when you're in medicine, you're always trying to achieve the best you can do day in and day out. That's just what feels right to me.

Courier Journal: What's it like to step into an industry with so much history?

Schmalz: I have a lot of respect for the people who blazed the path to get whiskey to where it is today. It's super interesting. I love to learn about, who came before us and what they did, and how we got here.

We all respect these brands that have been around forever, and these low number DSPs [bourbon distilleries are given numbers that go from low to high in the order they are established], and I love to hear the history. So I love the historical stories around the industry, but I also like the idea that people are making their expression and this is the 2024 version. It comes from what's happened in the past.

Courier Journal: What's next for Fortune's Fool?

Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.
Co-founder of Fortune’s Fool, Juliet Schmalz. The company’s first whiskey, The Prelude, was distilled in Kentucky and launched last year.

Schmalz: We have a bourbon that will probably be on the shelves by mid-October. It will also be about a 30-barrel dump. Volume-wise, I'm not sure we're going to go much higher than that, immediately, until we start producing a little more. We're currently producing about three 300 barrels per year, and we're hoping over the next few years to get up to about 500 per year.

Part of it, is the barrels that we buy (from Napa Valley’s Seguin Moreau Cooperage) are so specific and so high quality that we buy as many as we can get from them.

Courier Journal: Why did you choose such a high-quality, limited barrel?

Schmalz: I think one nice thing, and it certainly wasn't necessarily on our minds at the time, is that it's different. … We asked some people, if you could buy any barrel, what would you buy? And we were directed to Seguin Moreau Cooperage. … 60 to 80% of the flavor profile comes from the barrel interacting with the whiskey. … In contract distilling you want it to taste as good as it possibly can, as soon as it possibly can. And there's no gimmick. It's just the highest quality barrel, and it's going to help it taste better a little bit sooner than if you bought a standard barrel.

Courier Journal: What advice would you give to somebody looking to do a dramatic career change like the one that you just went through?

Schmalz: I feel like the older you get the less you're willing to settle on your happiness. There's pressure, even now to like, be a physician and practice medicine. I spent all this time preparing myself for this. I was in my 30s when I got my first job because that's what it takes to study and train. But at some point, you have to take care of yourself. You've got to think about what makes you happy and still be able to have a job and have a career and pay the bills. Maybe you're thinking more about balance, or something that makes you a little more excited to get out of bed in the morning than before.

I think the advice is to listen to that voice in your head and follow what you think your life could be. So that you don't have regrets in the future, and that you just stayed with something because it was more comfortable or is easier.

Sometimes you have to carve your way through, and it might be harder before it gets easier. But on the other side of it, you're a better person, you're happier, and more fulfilled, and that way you can take better care of your family and friends.

Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. Sometimes she writes about bourbon, too. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at mmenderski@courier-journal.com. Follow along on Instagram @MaggieMenderski.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Fortune's Fool whiskey Kentucky bourbon founded by former doctor

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