Nov. 21, 2011, is a date that Ralph Haynes will never forget. It’s the day he and his partners, Tom Anderson and Jerry Meyer, sold their first bottle of Pinckney Bend Distillery’s Hand-Crafted American Gin out of the back of Haynes’ 2003 Toyota Sienna. They had kicked around the idea of starting a distillery after a decade of homebrewing in Anderson’s basement. And then Anderson made a decent whiskey.
“None of us were getting any younger, so we spent all of 2010 learning what we needed to do to do it,” says Haynes, who serves as the distillery’s director of sales and marketing. “What we found is that we launched at this perfect time in terms of the convergence of interest in craft spirits, growth in whiskey markets and [being able to] learn from the mistakes that other operations had made – and bingo, bango, bongo, we’ll break a million in sales this year.”
If you stand on the levee in New Haven, Missouri, and look up the Missouri River, you’ll see where the distillery’s namesake, Pinckney Bend itself, was located before the flood of 1824. The small nearby town of Pinckney already had a history of producing some of the first whiskey in the area. Legend has it that Lewis and Clark bought a bottle of whiskey in New Haven in 1806, and though they complained bitterly about the price, none in the expedition complained about the flavor. The Pinckney Bend Distillery team felt there was a resonance in the area telling them they needed to revive it.
“The inspiration is that these people moved [to the U.S.] – how bad did things have to be in Europe to pack up your family and go on a ship to a place you’ve never seen before?” says Anderson, Pinckney Bend’s master distiller. “What fortitude do you need to do that? That’s what we want to do with spirits. We want that much passion, and by doing classic products, that’s what we think we’re bringing to things.”
Pinckney Bend began with a gin because it doesn’t need to be aged, and the founders didn’t want to go the moonshine route; aged whiskey is too much of a future investment for a startup. Anderson soon developed a flavor profile for the gin, and they “went for it.” Not long after launching the American Gin, it won a gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a big deal on its own, which also enabled Pinckney Bend to get a distributor.
The distillery now makes cask-finished gin, corn whiskey, rested whiskey and vodka, but its next big thing is heirloom corn whiskey. It’s become somewhat of an obsession for Haynes, who has collected and propagated varieties of corn that distillers in Missouri used at the turn of the 20th century, namely Tennessee Red Cob, Hickory Cane and Pencil Cob, with the projected release near the end of 2016.
“They all look different, and they are different,” Haynes explains. “They have different protein contents that’ll make whiskeys that taste different. How different? We don’t know yet, but we’re gonna find out.”
When Pinckney Bend got its distilling license in 2011, it was distillery No. 230 in the country. Today, there are 750 craft distillers operating in the U.S., estimates Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization and guild, with another 300 under construction. Distilleries have always been prevalent in places like Kentucky, but in the past five years, Missouri has seen a substantial increase in craft spirits production. “Missouri is a great state to be in [for distillers] – one of the best,” Owens says. “We’re seeing annual growth of about 30 percent [nationally].” Last spring, a meeting of regional distillers was held at The Fountain on Locust in St. Louis – the first time a majority of local distillers were in one place. The event drew established favorites like St. Louis’ StilL 630, Spirits of St. Louis, Big O and Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery out of Union, Missouri, as well as newer producers including Kansas City-area’s S.D. Strong Distilling; Wood Hat Spirits from New Florence, Missouri; and Rocheport Distilling Co. from Rocheport, Missouri.
Steve Strong, founder of S.D. Strong Distilling in Parkville, Missouri, lays down whiskey barrels between distilling vodka and gin; for him, too, aging whiskey is very expensive. “We’re 100 percent self-funded, so every time I lay a barrel down and let it sit there for two years, that’s a lot of money that isn’t going back out and trying to make us more money,” he says. “So pretty much any money we make, we put it back into aging our whiskey.” His first straight rye whiskey was released last month, and he’s barrel-aging bourbon, as well.
Most people know S.D. Strong for its original spirit, Kansas City Vodka, and the fact that Strong distills 65 feet underground. He admits it gives the distillery a bootlegger feel, but the cave was actually built in the late ‘70s to mine limestone. It also already had a sprinkler system – another huge but necessary expense. Like Pinckney Bend, Strong was validated early on by some serious competition wins, most notably when the distillery’s Pillar 136 Gin won a Washington Cup at the Washington Cup American Spirits Competition last year.
According to Strong, the process varies depending on spirit and distillery but, generally, distilling begins with grain. The grain is mixed with hot water and yeast, creating a mash bill, and is heated for two to two-and-a-half hours to convert the starch in the grains to fermentable sugars. After it’s cooled back down, it goes into the fermentation tank for about a week, sometimes more, while the yeast is pitched and eats up all the fermentable sugars, resulting in a byproduct of about 10 to 13 percent alcohol by volume. That is then pumped into the still, where it’s boiled until it turns into a vapor; once it hits a condenser, it chills back into a liquid. This process happens once for whiskey and twice for vodka. The vodka is then filtered with activated carbon before it’s bottled, while whiskey goes into barrels to age. Strong does 16 different filtrations of the vodka before hand-bottling; he says that’s where he’s really able to control the spirit’s smoothness.
Strong thinks the craft-distilling movement is following the same trend that craft brewing did 20 years ago; unfortunately, the numbers aren’t quite as high, thanks to pretty steep barriers to entry. Under federal law, distillers have to build their equipment and have everything ready to go before they can even apply for a license to distill – a substantial financial risk if your application ends up denied. Plus, unlike wineries and breweries, small distilleries pay the same amount of tax per proof gallon as the big guys like Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam.
“There’s legislation happening in Washington, D.C., trying to get some tax breaks, but right now it’s a big challenge,” Strong says. “That’s a lot of tax for a small startup distillery. I think it’ll catch up to the microbrewery craze – I hope it does. It’ll really help us out in a financial way so we can actually grow and hire more people.” S.D. Strong is currently distributed in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, and is heading to Texas and Illinois this year.
People seem to be more interested in craft distilling, Strong says, because they want something specialty made on a small scale. Jerry Meyer, chief executive officer of Pinckney Bend, agrees. “People are definitely more educated than ever,” he says. “They know what they want.”
Haynes agrees with Meyer: “People are willing to spend money for quality.”
Envelope-pushing cocktail programs like those at Manifesto, Ça Va and Cleaver & Cork in Kansas City and Planter’s House and Taste in St. Louis use regionally distilled spirits alongside national heavy hitters more and more. And just as chefs and artisan producers have reached out to craft brewers for collaborations, so are tastemakers joining forces with regional distillers.
Pinckney Bend finishes some of its special-edition port-cask whiskey with port barrels from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri. In a double collaboration, 2nd Shift Brewing in New Haven finishes its stout in the barrels used to age Pinckney Bend’s whiskey, which are then returned to finish the distillery’s stout-cask whiskey. Mother’s Brewing Co. in Springfield, Missouri, swaps whiskey barrels with Copper Run Distillery in Walnut Shade, Missouri, to make Sandy, its hopped-up wheat beer.
“I think people are looking for something genuine and authentic,” says Jim Blansit, owner and distiller at Copper Run, in the Ozarks. “People are tired of the same choices, the same Jack and Jim. They’re looking for good wine and good food and beer and good spirits, too. They’re attracted to the hands on and the homemade and the attention to quality, rather than the mass-produced quantity.”
Blansit began Copper Run in 2009 with a white rum because it was relatively easy to process sugar cane into rum, and processing grain to make whiskey requires more equipment. As Blansit sold more and more of it and his Overproof White Rum, he grew the business by reinvesting instead of taking out a loan; he now produces moonshine, whiskey, spiced rum and a few other special releases. He is the first legal distiller in the Ozarks since Prohibition.
“When I opened, I had a handful of old-timers come to see what I was doing – they couldn’t believe it,” Blansit laughs. “They wanted to bring samples of the illegal whiskey they’d been making. I remember, they came out of the woods. They just couldn’t believe it.”
Blansit has run into tax issues, as well, and laments the amount of state, federal and local paperwork required to run a distillery. It won’t stop Copper Run from growing – though he won’t give hard numbers, Copper Run is on track to double its output in 2016 – but he says there is a cap for how big he’d allow the distillery to become.
“I’ll never grow to the point where we have to compromise the quality,” he says. “One thing’s for sure about human nature: If you can’t have something you want, you want it even more. Copper Run’s business model is to stay small, focus on quality and create a demand for a limited supply. You’ll never find us in Wal-Mart.”
Across the state in New Haven, Pinckney Bend isn’t operating under quite the same philosophy. It’s planning to open a new, larger tasting room and distillery across the street from its current operations by July 1. A 320-gallon still has been installed, with room for a second and a third (its current still holds 60 gallons). “We have plans to expand, but we are in Downtown New Haven; it’s not gonna get any bigger,” Tom Anderson says. “There’s a finite size [for Pinckney Bend], but we can continue to grow.”
“We started this up because [Tom] made a good whiskey one time and I liked to drink gin, and goodness gracious, what we’ve learned and where we’ve gone and where we’re going,” Meyer says, noting that you can now get Pinckney Bend in Italy and Singapore thanks to private buyers.
“We’re helping the world,” Anderson says, “one gin and tonic at a time.”
Pinckney Bend Distillery, 1101 Miller St., New Haven, Missouri, 573.237.5559, pinckneybend.com
S.D. Strong Distilling, 8500 NW River Park Drive #136A, Parkville, Missouri, sdstrongdistilling.com
Copper Run Distillery, 1901 Day Road, Walnut Shade, Missouri, 417.587.3456, copperrundistillery.com