PUBLISHED JUN 17, 2019 11 mins read
PUBLISHED JUN 17, 2019 11 mins read
Everyone has a specialty, one thing they do better than anything else. And the opportunity for growth starts from there. Like a gardener who learns how to cook or an interior designer that creates their own furniture, it just makes sense. The same goes for distillers crafting a tonic to complement their gin or the perfect bitters for their bourbon. It's human nature to try harder, do more, and to constantly ask if you've done enough. Without that little voice in our heads, "fullest potential" would simply mean "first try."
"We don't do it for the money; we do it for the craft." - Bent Brewstillery
Spirits were the first step for some, leading to experiments on how they can best be featured, like feeding bourbon mash to beef cattle, or throwing pre-mixed cocktails into a can. For others, spirits are an extension of other passions, like using the run-off from wine production or further distilling tea to create an entirely different breed of beverages. No matter the situation, these master distillers, founders, and craftsmen have used their skills to branch into new industries; and in certain situations, created their own. BigFish is proud to feature these ten distilleries and their ability to push the boundaries of their craft and ultimately push themselves. Explore their process, learn their story, and appreciate the quality that goes into every product.
Townshend’s Distillery started as a tea company, but along the way they launched an additional kombucha business that would one day inspire a distillery. After Lindsey Lohan failed a sobriety test (apparently with kombucha to blame), kombucha makers were tasked with regulating the alcohol content that naturally forms in each batch. The founders of Townshend’s Distillery decided to remove the alcohol via distilling, but once they discovered how "remarkably aromatic, soft, and useful the distillate was” they decided to put their love of botanical spirits and background in tea to good use. Blending the three businesses is not only easy, it's crucial to the whole process.
"Tea becomes kombucha which is distilled into spirits which is then crafted into amaro with tea and other botanicals. Our aim is to expand the American market to new and innovative uses for an old world tradition, from tea to brew to spirits. Having three businesses that do just that make a whole lot of sense,” says the Townshend's Distillery team.
Their Kashmiri Amaro is the center of all three companies, using Indian botanicals from a chai recipe to craft an Amaro from their sage and tea kombucha distillate. “Plus the use of Assam black tea makes it sort of caffeinated.”
After a year of working in the wine industry, Alex Villicana convinced his wife Monica that it would be a great idea to start their own winery. The couple bought a piece of land in Paso Robles, California, and proceeded to plant their vineyard. They dug every hole, planted the vines, set up the trellis and irrigations systems, put up the deer fencing, and farmed the vineyard. After nearly a decade of weekend road trips and digging in the dirt, Alex and Monica Villicana did what every rational young couple would do. They quit their day jobs, moved their two young children from Los Angeles to Paso Robles, and fully committed themselves to Villicana Winery.
Through years of tireless dedication to their craft, they noticed a problem with the wine-making process. Like most wineries, they were discarding a significant portion of saignée, the free-run juice created from freshly crushed grapes. Alex and Monica thought this was an awful waste, so they racked their brains to figure out a solution. Once they learned vodka could be made from any raw material, they started to transform these remains into quality, handcrafted spirits. "This is where the name comes from - FINDing a RE use for the unused, prized juice,” explains Monica Villicana.
“Villicana Winery and Re:Find Distillery are in a symbiotic relationship. The distillery needs the prized free-run juice from the winery and which brings in more resources to invest back into the vineyard, creating a higher quality grape. As Re:Find grows, Villicana Winery is able to sustainably craft a higher quality wine. Both businesses use the same equipment (minus the still). Our wines and spirits are an expression of both chemistry and artistry,” says Alex Villicana.
Their background in brewing is extensive. Two of their brewers worked professionally in the industry, brewing and distilling at home well before it was legal for them to purchase the spirits themselves. Their third brewer is about to graduate from Cincinnati with a brewing degree, March First being his first job in the industry. While they originally started their business as a cidery and brewery, they saw the craft spirits industry growing and wanted to be a part of it.
"It was the challenge of doing it and the fact that no one in our area seemed to be doing it all. We wanted to build ourselves up as a place that offered something for everyone...we currently are housed in the same building so you can see the distilling, brewing and cider making operations all under one roof,” says the March First Brewing & Distilling team. “Having such a wide variety of products [has] helped us in our taproom and out in the market. If someone isn't into beer we can show them our spirits line or vice versa."
President and CEO Melissa Katrincic co-founded Durham Distillery in 2015 with her husband Lee. Lee has multiple degrees in advanced chemistry and over twenty years of pharmaceutical research and development expertise, while Melissa has an education in Physics and a background in marketing and operations. They combined their skills to make gin, vodka, and some Damn Fine Liqueurs.
“Together, we're excited by the challenge of creating high-quality craft spirits by combining time-honored distilling traditions with the tools and techniques of modern science,” Melissa Katrincic says. In August 2018, they decided to add canned cocktails to the lineup, a Gin & Tonic and a Vodka & Soda, along with a Gin Rosé Spritz ready for release this June.
“We saw that there was a growing demand for ready-to-drink canned cocktails and [we] were excited to be the first distillery in North Carolina to produce them using our award-winning spirits and fresh, house-made ingredients. We're passionate about great cocktails in addition to great spirits, so producing a craft cocktail for our consumers that could be enjoyed straight from the can, and that has no artificial ingredients or fillers, was a fun project for us,” Melissa explains. “Our canned cocktails are produced in our distillery and use our Conniption American Dry Gin and our Cold Distilled Cucumber Vodka. I developed the recipes and make all the component parts, including the tonic used in our Gin & Tonic...We also can them at the distillery on our brand new canning line.”
Managing partner and cider-maker Marc Chretein was working as a political adviser when he decided to team up with former rocket scientist Peter Ahlf and create Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery. With Marc already being the part owner of Stowe Cidery, and Peter being a home brewer and herb gardner, they utilized their skills to launch the cidery and distillery at the same time. By starting the businesses in tandem, they created synergy between the two, allowing one product to build off the other. Not only do the products intermingle, but the storefronts do as well.
“Mt Defiance Apple Brandy is made from Mt Defiance Cidery Farmhouse Cider. The cidery in turn makes a Pommeau and a Sweet Vermouth using the distillery's Apple brandy. We have a common herb garden that supplies herbs for the distillery's absinthe and the cidery's vermouth,” Marc and Peter explain. “Within our distillery building is a tasting room and sales outlet for our Cidery. This gives our customers a wide choice of beverages to try when they visit. [The] "cider barn" is just a half mile away on 11 acres of land, giving us plenty of room to grow herbs...We are planning an absinthe festival for [the distillery] next year, and our cider barn will provide the ideal venue.”
Ian Glomski worked in the wine business, namely his family's wineries, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Page Springs Cellars. As an owner and principal of these two pioneering wineries, he brought microbiological and biochemical expertise to the table, along with some common sense.
Vitae's website describes Ian as having “a profound fascination... for microbes and how they sculpt our macroscopic world. [Being an] experienced brewer, winemaker, cheesemaker, meat curer, kefir culturer, veggie pickler, wild mushroom forager, and infectious disease specialist, anything having to do with microbes turns him on."
After seven years of working the wineries, Ian was eager to do more with his skills. Ian explains that he wanted "to be [a] founder, builder, conceptualizer, call the shots, and enjoy doing it." With these goals in mind, he opened Vitae Spirits. "Founding a distilled spirits enterprise [gave] life to so many aspects of his personality and training that it [seems like] something akin to destiny."
"There is a ton of overlap between a distillery and a winery at the operational, business, and creative level, so spending time at our family wineries was fantastic training that made entry into the distilling world that much easier,” says Ian Glomski, “In fact, my first dip into legal distillation happened when we decided to turn Arizona wine from Page Springs Cellars into brandy at a distillery close by the vineyards...We just released the brandy a few months ago after aging it for 6 years. It never hit the shelves; it sold out on pre orders!"
Jim and Mary Pat Harris founded Bozeman Spirits Distillery with the goal of creating jobs within Montana and supporting the local businesses. After almost two years of planning and a complete build out of a historic building in Downtown Bozeman, the distillery opened its doors on Halloween of 2014. The distillery didn't need the whole building's space to succeed, so they decided to add brewing to their skillset.
"[We] learned a while back during the recession that you need to diversify,” the founders of Bozeman Spirits explain. “Having two businesses in an alcohol-related field may not seem like much diversification, but the costs involved with each are drastically different. Other factors that make these two different are the Federal Tax structures and the understanding that beer does not have a long shelf life, but liquor does, therefore being able to weather the storm in different capacities over time. Liquor before beer, never fear! Seriously though, we do get lots of tourists in the summer that will visit both."
Everything about Eau Claire is tied to evolution. Even their distillery has changed over time. Housed in the 1929 Turner Valley Movie Theatre and Dance Hall, their building once served as a town hall, political rally centre, community gathering spot, and of course, a dance hall. Much like the location, their process combines qualities from tradition and innovation to create something entirely unique to them. But why stop there? Eau Claire saw the success of their products and built upon them to create something even better.
"We decided to make artisanal craft tonic water that paired perfectly with our award-winning spirits. We also wanted to make canned cocktails because we felt there was a lack of quality ingredients and craft canned products out there,” says the Eau Claire Distillery team. “It's exciting to be involved in another industry other than craft distilling. It allows our team to be creative in creating different craft ad quality brands and products for a wide range of customers. We look forward to creating new tonic water and canned cocktail flavours."
The head distiller of SILO Distillery came into the role almost by accident. "I started as a marketer who was far too curious for her own good, and felt the best way to properly voice the brand was to get my hands dirty. Now, 6 years later, I have taken over and have a staff of 2 other women assisting me," says Erin Bell, Production Manager and Head Distiller of SILO Distillery. “Our cider program is spearheaded by one of these women, with 19 years of cider experience under her belt and a desire to learn distilling. The crossover has lent itself to exciting [research and development] and you can regularly expect to hear someone say ‘I wonder what would happen if we…' Everything just fell into place."
Their access to high quality, local apples from Moore's Orchard in Woodstock, Vermont - along with the rise in cider's popularity - made the step into cider production a simple one. By adding cider to their product line, they knew the extra revenue could be used to fund their plans for expansion. "And [they] all really like to drink cider, that's probably the number one reason."
The cross-promoting, equipment-sharing, people-pleasing combination of beer and spirits was always the intention behind Bent Brewstillery. In fact, the decision to do both was written in their original business plan. Founder Bartley Blume started as a home brewer, thanks to his wife Brenda and the Mr. Beer kit she gifted him 12 years ago. (And as far as you and the local police know, there was never any home distilling.) Bent Brewstillery was created to not only appreciate beer and spirits, but to "stop guzzling and start enjoying and understanding the true qualities of beverages."
"The idea is to make tasty brews and powerful booze with bold names and flavors while rebelling against rigid style guidelines, along with having fun,” founder Bartley Blume explains. “Bent Brewstillery brings to spirits the same thing that craft brought to beer. Where would the craft beer industry be if everyone made a flavorless pilsner? The whole idea is to make something different and creative, artistic."
It's hard to develop a skill and even harder to expand once you've mastered them. These distilleries have achieved the near-impossible by pushing their craft and ultimately pushing themselves, seeking innovation at every turn. It's exciting, risky, and anything but easy. But if it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be special.
"Long live the bold!" - Townshend's Distillery
There's always room for improvement, just how much is the question. The answer is dependent on willingness and determination. Whether distilling was the beginning, or simply a chapter in a much longer success story, BigFish will always appreciate the end result: fine craft spirits.