Get Rob Vossmeyer talking about cooking, and you’ll soon understand his passion for distilling quality artisan spirits for 1220 Spirits in St. Louis.
“My favorite thing to do in the world is cook, ever since I was a kid,” Vossmeyer says. “I love flavor, flavor creation and putting flavors together to create new stuff. That’s really the drive behind why I do what I do with alcohol – it’s an opportunity to really get a lot deeper into exploring those things.”
As head distiller of 1220, Vossmeyer spends his days experimenting with flavor combinations, researching new ingredients and testing various profiles against one another to develop unique botanical-inspired spirits. St. Louis got a taste of his work this past May, when 1220 released its first flagship product, Origin, a year-round New American gin, as well as a tonic produced specifically to complement the gin. The distillery, which is located inside 4 Hands Brewing Co. and owned by brewery founder Kevin Lemp, recently released the gin and tonic on draft around town as well as Gin & Juiced, a summer-perfect packaged slushie made with Origin. By the of the year, the gin and tonic will be sold in cans.
This fall and winter, Vossmeyer plans to debut several new products, including an amaro – a spirit rarely produced in the Midwest – and a barrel-aged gin made in collaboration with an as-yet-unnamed local producer.
“I’m staring at the amaro right now; we have a bunch of prototypes lined up and we’re looking at an end of the year launch for that,” Vossmeyer says. “We want to push boundaries. That’s one that’s been really exciting for me, because I wouldn’t necessarily have picked [amaro] myself, but it’s quite a challenge. I think it’s a challenge to do anything well – you really have to understand something, learn it and deconstruct it to be able to then put it back together the way you want to express it. I think that’s key.”
Vossmeyer has been with 1220 since its launch earlier this year, and the distillery has offered him something of a homecoming; before moving back to his hometown of St. Louis, Vossmeyer led distilling operations at Tom’s Town Distilling in Kansas City. Over the years, he’s earned a Certified Specialist of Spirits certificate from the Society of Wine Educators and an associate’s degree from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) in the U.K.; Vossmeyer is currently working toward another diploma from the IBD.
“I think education is really important,” Vossmeyer says. “There’s no test to become a distiller or open up a distillery. In some ways, that’s great, and this industry does attract people from all different backgrounds and walks of life and experiences. And I would put myself in that – I had no formal training before my interest arose.”
We recently caught up with Vossmeyer to learn more about the amaro and barrel-aged gin he’s currently experimenting with at 1220, how he’s seen the craft distilling industry evolve in the past year and why it’s wise to keep Chambord on a high shelf.
What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? That’s hard – it just depends on what you’re making. Instead of one ingredient, I would have to say that finding the best quality ingredients to start with – the raw materials – are most important. So, if you’re going to use a neutral spirit, make sure you find the cleanest, best neutral spirit you can start with. Or if you’re looking for flavor, find the one that’s got the best flavor. I think the thing that’s fun for me when it comes to ingredients – and that’s why it’s so hard to pick one – is that there’s a world of stuff out there now that we have access to. If you want to pay for it, you can get it. A Tasmanian pepper berry – you can pay to have it shipped here and use it. [Laughs.] So I can’t give you one ingredient specifically, as much as I would say that new and unexplored ingredients and figuring out the best ways to use them – or if it’s useable at all – is the most fun for me.
Do you have a secret weapon in your job? Education; education is absolutely key. I’m one of those people who, if you want to understand something, you have to learn everything about it and deconstruct it so you can do it your own way. Understanding why do we distill this way for this product, and why do we distill a different way to get a different product, what these different ingredients do, how can you use them and how can’t you use them? So education, for sure. The other secret weapon, I think is… When I got into this industry, there were maybe about 600 or 500 distilleries [in the U.S.] and now there are permits for more than 2,000. And so one of the secret weapons, I think, is networking. There’s people I haven’t known in this industry, but I’ve been able to sit down, become friends with them – or even acquaintances with – and hearing their stories. That network is priceless in terms of finding the things you need. For example, the juniper I used today in 1220 gin was something I learned about from my mentor, Maggie Campbell out of Privateer Rum in Massachusetts. I talked to her about trying to track down some certain kinds of juniper, and she said, “I’ve heard that this is fantastic; if you can find it, go get it.” And I did. That kind of sharing of knowledge is, in my mind, absolutely a secret ingredient.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? Keep in mind, I’m kind of reintroducing myself to St. Louis; it’s been three years, and that’s one thing that’s cool about this place, is there’s never a shortage of new and great places to try. St. Louis culture is food and drink driven. For breakfast I really like Comet [Coffee]; they do a fantastic job with both pastries and coffee. For lunch, I’ve been on this kick for Ninth Street Deli at Howards lately; I love their sandwiches. They do a great job. I had one two, three days ago, the T-Bone – I think it was the special this week – and it was just fire. It had smoked turkey, pepperoni, a whole hodgepodge of stuff that was delicious. And then, I spent a couple of years working at two different sushi restaurants, and one of them… Heidi Hamamura is a good friend of mine. I love her to death. I was introduced to her when I started working with [her father], Naomi Hamamura. I also met a friend of mine, David Lee, who now owns Kampai [Sushi Bar]. That would probably be dinner for me, because when I go in there and David is working – and there’s another guy, Benjie, behind the bar – they absolutely take care of me, and I just think they do a fantastic job. So that would be dinner, and then I guess for drinks, Planter’s House – Ted Kilgore has always been kind of an idol of mine since I’ve been following cocktail culture. He’s a guy who knows so much, but he’s approachable, and that’s so key to me. If you’re someone who has a passion for what you do and you’re really knowledgeable about it, I find that those people, if they’re genuine about it, want to share it. And Ted has always been so easy-going and approachable. I think he and Jamie [Kilgore] both work very hard at creating a special and curated space there.
How has the local craft-distilling scene evolved over the past year? The number of entrants has increased. I’ve seen those who have been doing this for a while being a little more serious about organizing and advocating on the behalf of craft spirits. Gary Hinegardner out at Wood Hat [Spirits] is the president of the newly formed Missouri Craft Distillers Guild, and I think that’s a big push for distillers to raise awareness. Everybody that I know in this industry – regionally, especially – we’re bogged down in the day-to-day of creating a product or getting a product out of the door – but marketing our own product sometimes is hard. So I think organizing the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild is going to be an important step in raising awareness about craft spirits in Missouri as a whole. That and the education of the consumer, really, have been the things that I’ve seen change as much as anything else in this industry.
Who are regional craft distillers you admire at the moment? We do a lot of talking about craft distilleries, and what is craft. We’ve watched craft beer go through this. In my mind, and what I think craft is, is you’re approach to creating a product. One distiller I’ve always admired for sure that’s in the craft category is St. George [Spirits] in Alameda, California. I also look at Buffalo Trace as my favorite craft distillery. And the reason I’ll stand behind that statement – craft distillery – is because despite the millions of dollars they make, they get into the nitty-gritty of exploring what it takes to make the perfect bourbon. They’re now farming heirloom varieties of corn, they have a single-oak project; that kind of experimentation and craft mentality that they bring to creating the absolute best product that they can create. And there are lots of guys around here who are doing that; again, Gary Hinegardner at Wood Hat [Spirits] with the red, white and blue corn whiskey. I think Dave Weglarz at StilL 630 is doing great stuff; he’s incredibly creative. He’s doing a sorghum rum. So again, they have that mentality as well. Those are people who I admire.
What concepts or styles of spirits do you hope to see added or expanded in our region? I think there’s a lot of people exploring a lot of rums. And Edelbrand [Pure Distilling] out of [Marthasville, Missouri]; they do a fantastic job. There aren’t a lot of people exploring fruit brandies and fruit eau de vies and doing it well, and I think that’s an area where we could probably learn a lot. And we have great resources when it comes to fruit in this state, and I’d like to see more people exploring that. I took a viticulture course down at Missouri State University, and they have a little still, and they were doing grappa and some other stuff there, and that was fascinating.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Cooking is my favorite thing to do. My favorite thing to cook is probably whatever I’ve been reading about recently – whatever strikes my fancy. If I’m flipping through a cookbook at home… Let me give you an example. The last thing I cooked that took time to make were Jamaican meat pies. I made the pastry dough, the filling, all that stuff – it was fun. You make the pastry dough with a whole lot of butter and a Jamaican yellow curry and then you make the filling with ground beef, allspice, some other things you cook down. It’s really tasty; that came to mind because I was on vacation recently and had some Caribbean food, and it made me want to make something like it when I got home. It’s whatever I’m inspired by at the moment or whatever I have in my refrigerator – that’s always a fun challenge, what you can create. It’s really whatever kind of comes to mind: making homemade mayonnaise, some bizarre food science thing.
What’s your favorite comfort food? It’s a basic answer, but I’ll tell you, there are few things as good as a burger. I’m not even talking about a specific kind – a good burger is just hard to beat. I love the ones at O’Connell’s [Pub] and Mac’s [Local Eats].
If you could tell home bartenders one thing, what would it be? Always experiment, always play, always push the boundaries of your creativity and be ready to fail. Unlike many things, failure might not always taste good, but it always feels good; you can drink your failures and take the hard edge off that failure. [Laughs.]
What’s your first spirits or cocktail memory? Oh my god… Are my parents going to read this? [Laughs.] It’s a funny story. I don’t remember how old I was – I was pretty young, like maybe 7 – and we had this little pantry off the kitchen. Up on one of the higher up shelves was a bottle of Chambord – I don’t know how much they’ve changed the bottle [now], but keep in mind, this was in the 1980s. But here’s this lovely darker red, syrupy goodness in a really pretty bottle, you know, it’s got almost like a crown on the top, and so, for a kid, it looks like cherry something or other. I remember sneaking up, grabbing that bottle and taking a little swig off of it, and it was tasty. [Laughs.] That’s the first time I remember drinking anything. It’s kind of embarrassing at 7 years old, but, you know, it’s an interesting story.
What’s the most intriguing spirit you’ve made recently, and why? By far this amaro that I’m working on now; it’s basically allowed me to do everything I love to do, which is to pick a project… I’m kind of a nerd in this aspect. I really like to break things down. So taking one ingredient and macerating it at 170 proof, and then doing it at 100 proof, and then [working on] color, playing with all these ingredients is a lot of fun.
What inspires your work? How do you approach R&D at your job, and what inspires that process? If I were going to sum it up in a word: methodically. It’s one thing I don’t like to rush, and that’s very important. I think if you’re in a hurry, you’re guaranteeing one thing, which is that you’re going to create, at best, something mediocre. So the first thing I like to do, especially, in this case, I’m basically trying to create stuff that Kevin wants to pursue. So, I’ll say, “OK, when you say you want to create a botanical gin, let’s go to, say, The Gin Room, and sit down with Natasha and go through 40 different gins and take notes, and then I’ll have a better idea of where you want to take this.” And that’s important, because it’s one thing if I’m doing it for myself, but if I’m doing it with a partner, then I need to understand what it is they’re looking to create. So once I have a direction, then it’s about taking the components that they like – the smoothness of this one, or the peppery bite on the finish of this one – and that allows me to consider how I can recreate those elements without just copying something. And then, of course, it becomes about taking the elements I want to use – and that could include things I’ve used before, or things I haven’t used. For instance, there’s Mexican allspice and Jamaican allspice, and they’re different, so I have to read up on whether I want the one that’s fruitier or more peppery, and then what’s the best way to use it. And it’s not just about botanicals, it’s also about your base spirit. So, in our gin, we use two different base spirits because of what they are, how they work together and how they affect the final product. It’s by far the most time-consuming part of the process, and I think it’s something that not a lot of people understand in terms of what it takes to build that library of knowledge.
What are your future plans? It has been so all-consuming getting this thing up and running and getting the first product out of the door. We’re going to do a fall/winter gin coming up that I’m actually very excited about. What I can tell you [about the gin] is that it’s going to be a barrel-aged gin, and it’s going to use some barrels from another local purveyor that I think people will get very excited about, and I’m very excited about it. It will absolutely be very unique. And then for the summer next year, there’s something I’ve already started working on a couple of months ago. Also very interesting; very different. Working as hard as I can to keep up a high standard of quality products that people enjoy. The biggest compliment I think somebody could give me here at 1220 is, “We thought your gin was great, but then we tried this, and then we tried that, and it never ceased to wow us.” That’s the gold standard for me – I want to keep people not just interested, but also excited for what’s next.
1220 Spirits, 1220 S. Eighth St., LaSalle Park, St. Louis, Missouri, facebook.com/1220spirits