Size isn’t everything; and for craft distillers, small can be mighty. Having enjoyed curated tours of some of the bigger players in US artisinal alcohol, we caught tastes of a few early-stage operations in Texas, Tennessee, and New York en route from our Austin sabbatical chapter.
Silicon Hills tech workers Mike Groener and Charles Cheung founded Genius Liquids in 2011, and brought their signature product, Genius Gin, to market in summer 2013. Sales Manager Mark Toohey—in Austin fashion, also a bandmate from Groener’s pop rock outfit Love at 20—showed us around the south-side industrial shed where they ferment their own cane sugar wine, distill it to neutral spirit (~190 proof), re-distill with a selection of botanicals, and hot-steep with an infusion including juniper and cardamom.
Thanks to Texas Senate Bill 905, passed a few months after their product launch, Genius can now market their wares on-site: a boon to the craft industry, and to us. An experimental Oaked Gin was surprisingly rich, as was the Genius Navy Strength; traditionally, the latter clocked in at 114 proof, intended to protect gunpowder from excess wetting on choppy seas. The Geniuses branched out from gin last summer with their Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, a tequila relative produced from local Dasylirion texanum; we were lucky to taste some, though it had sold out by last fall.
A thousand miles east, nestled in the Smoky Mountains, Darrell Miller opened Bootleggers Distillery in early 2015. This incarnation may be new, but Miller traces his shiner ancestry to William Mullins, a Mayflower passenger reportedly known for his elixirs. Following careers in farming, teaching, and real estate, Miller seized the opportunity when Tennessee—like Texas—substantially loosened small-scale distilling restrictions in 2013 (for which he also claims some credit); he now ferments, distills, and markets small-batch corn moonshine from his own roadside shop. He shared some frank frustrations with his 26-gallon pot still, but the product was remarkably smooth, both in His (100 proof) and Hers (80 proof, with a bit of cane sugar) versions; various flavors are also sold online through the Moonshine International collective.
Another thousand miles north in upstate New York, Dave Bannon, Tony DeSantis, Mike Forcier, and Ken Rohne launched Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery in fall 2014. The four span forty years in age, but connected through a love of home-brewing; New York’s 2012 Farm Distillery Bill, anticipating similar motions in Texas and Tennessee, encouraged them to expand their hooch horizons. Farm operations using >75 % New York agricultural products can now pour a full range of in-State beer, wine, cider, and spirits in their tasting rooms, and can sell their own wares in farmer’s markets, fairs, and stores.
We leveraged some personal connections to talk Forcier, a fellow biochemist, into showing us the ropes on Springbrook’s custom Kothe still through a three-hour rye run—goopy, but gratifying. Like any good experimentalist, Forcier had a catalog of trouble-shooting tales: switching from plastic fermenting barrels to larger steel milk tanks was key, as was optimizing enzymes to break down different grains. The solitary, 265-gallon still is kept free of aromatic oils by steam-distilling pungent elements of their Sly Fox Gin separately, enabling its use for a wider range of products. True to its name, Springbrook’s wheat-based vodka is watered to proof with unprocessed spring water; their tasty Howl at the Apple Moonshine starts from a spicier grain mix including corn, rye, and barley malt, mixed in-still with New York apple cider.
For early-days distillers, the investment of resources and enthusiasm is clearly substantial; yet the dedicated problem-solvers we encountered from Texas to New York clearly reap personal rewards. If nascent operations like Genius, Bootleggers, and Springbrook are representative, craft distilling is taking off nationwide; yet every distillery we’ve visited is instructively unique. We’ll be interested to see—and hopefully sample—the industry’s continuing evolution.