The word ‘handcrafted’ gets used a lot these days, but for the folks behind B.T.O. Distillers, it’s deeply rooted in everything they do. At B.T.O. Distillers, the home of Bluestem Vodka and the soon-to-be-released Bluestem Gin, that hands-on approach can be seen not only in the innovative way they make their spirits but also in the actual building where all the magic happens.
Pride in everything local
“Pretty much everything you see when you come to the distillery was constructed by us,” said owner Tony Newton. “We utilized local resources to make the tasting room rich with local history.” That includes the bar top, which is slate from the roof of a former nearby train station, and the pallet wood for the tasting room wall, which comes from Scott Air Force Base.
That local mentality also applies to the spirits’ names: Big Bluestem is the State Prairie Grass of Illinois and Missouri.
A production system like no other
While only open since 2017, B.T.O. Distillers has plenty of — you guessed it — hands-on industry experience behind it. For its one-of-a-kind production system, where mashing, fermentation and distillation all occur in the same tank, the founders combined their 50 years of brewing, winemaking and alcohol production know-how and expertise to design the unique approach. “You won’t find our process anywhere in the world,” Newton said.
Besides eliminating the need to transfer liquid between tanks, this process also creates a cleaner alcohol prior to and after distillation.
For Bluestem Vodka, which is distilled from corn and cut with reverse osmosis water, the end result is a slightly sweet, extremely pure spirit, which makes it a delicious base for any number of cocktails. “Bluestem Vodka is impurity free, so you’ll wake up the next morning with your mind and body thanking you,” said Chris Mueller, distillery manager. Plus, every ingredient, including the bottle, cork and wax, is American made.
To create Bluestem Gin, B.T.O. took its time to make sure the end result was perfect. While no official terms have been designated, the words ‘contemporary,’ ‘Western’ or ‘New World’ best describe the style they were aiming for. “We didn't want to recreate a London Dry, but rather a unique and original recipe that is recognizable as gin but has its own identity and profile,” Mueller said.
Starting with its impurity-free vodka, a base of traditional flavors, such as juniper, pepper, cardamom and coriander are added in. From there, the distillers explored a combination of botanicals that take the gin to a wide range of profiles and further the layers of flavors. “We've played with violet and honeysuckle for floral notes, various fruits like honeydew melon and chirimoya, and some varieties of citrus and spices,” Mueller said. Feedback from patrons who sampled the various blends helped determine the final recipe. (An official gin release party is slated for May. For updates, like B.T.O. on Facebook or Instagram, or sign up here for their newsletter.)
While enjoying a Bluestem Vodka or Gin cocktail at home is always an option (see below for recipes and click here for where to buy), B.T.O.’s Tasting Room, open Thursday through Saturdays, offers a more personal experience with the added bonus of live music on Saturdays. On tap is B.T.O.’s hard seltzer with different flavors every week.
Tasting Room and Tours
Get a behind-the-scenes look with a distillery tour offered on Saturdays with a reservation, which includes a Bluestem Vodka tasting, a cocktail and opportunity to wax your own bottle with purchase. “From the time someone steps into our tasting room to the time they leave,” said Newton, “we provide an experience in a laidback atmosphere that is both educational and a lot of fun.”