UofL student blends chemistry, distilling into career path

Katherine Grace O’Nan
Katherine Grace O’Nan

Chemical engineering senior Katherine Grace O’Nan has an inside joke with her dad.

It goes like this: one day they will open a microbrewery together. She will handle all the chemistry and her beer-loving dad will handle all the tasting.

While the lighthearted banter between father and daughter was just for fun, the joking planted the seed of an idea in O’Nan’s heart. Could she leverage her love of chemistry to work in one of Kentucky’s most celebrated industries?

“I’ve always loved my home state of Kentucky and when I added chemical engineering into the mix, the bourbon industry seemed to be a marriage of the two,” O’Nan said.

A native of Ashland, O’Nan began her academic journey with a UofL Brown Fellows Program scholarship. The grant provides full tuition, a spending stipend and international travel enrichment experiences.

“For my first summer enrichment experience, I decided to follow this interest by traveling to Scotland for three weeks to shadow and work at various whisky distilleries,” O’Nan said. “Learning more about the process and seeing how passionate those in the industry were really confirmed that this was something I wanted to pursue.”

When the time came for O’Nan’s second Brown Fellows enrichment opportunity, she headed north.

“I road-tripped from Kentucky up through Detroit across the border to Canada. From there, I spent a week making my way across Ontario, stopping at distilleries to work for a day at a time,” O’Nan explained. “Once I hit Toronto, I flew to Nova Scotia and spent a week there working at a few more distilleries.”

Some of her distillery experiences were closer to home. She attended Moonshine University in Louisville. The five-day intensive workshop featured instructions on vodka, rum, whiskey and gin-making, sensory training and discussed industry topics such as branding, distribution, state and federal compliance, hospitality and tourism.

To gain even more insight, O’Nan leveraged her Speed School of Engineering co-op by working at Louisville-based distiller, Michter’s.

“During my time there, I was able to learn a lot about whiskey filtration processes, how a distillery and its equipment operate, concepts about how the whisky ages in the barrel, and just how many people it takes to get from that grain to a quality bottle on the shelf,” O’Nan said.

O’Nan has now visited 19 distilleries and tried many different drinks, but bourbon is still her favorite.

“I love the way that the bourbon industry is so prominent right now and brings so many to the state of Kentucky. I’m passionate about my home state and the drink people from all over associate with it,” she said.

O’Nan is on track to graduate from UofL in the spring.

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