A Kansas Farmyard Distillery )
  • Infused Vodka
  • Absinthe is now legal.
  • Water of Life in Mattaw, WA.
  • ADI membership
  • Back issues
  • TTB Permits
  • ATCHISON, Kan. - The main still of the High Plains liquor company here was scraped together from junked parts of an old food processing plant. The tubing for the bottling equipment had been used to milk cows, and one of the tanks was actually an industrial vacuum cleaner.
    A Kansas Farmyard Distillery
    Ed Zurga for The New York Times Mr. Fox cobbled together the distillery housed in the background using castoff equipment. More Photos » The whole clanking operation, headquartered on a farm northwest of Kansas City, looks like a patchwork contraption out of the imagination. And that is basically what it was two years ago when Seth Fox, a cattle rancher down on his luck, decided to get a license to distill some vodka and a little whiskey.
    "I talked to banks, told them I wanted to make vodka on my farm here, and they said, 'Yeah, right you are,'" recalled Mr. Fox, whose company went on to become the first distillery in Kansas since Prohibition. "Well, I had a million dollars in sales last year."
    "I'm the seventh generation to be in alcohol," he said proudly. "Just the first to do it legally."
    On the heels of the microbrewing boom, new microdistilleries are thriving from coast to coast. And some of the latest and quirkiest entrants to the industry are in places like Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Mr. Fox's barn.
    In trying to take advantage of generations of his family's moonshining expertise, Mr. Fox, for instance, had no business plan, no employees and about $100 in his checking account. Only his timing was rich: the national demand for high-end spirits, especially vodka, has soared over the last several years, along with the general consumer craving for products with local flair.
    Meanwhile, some of the states, increasingly aware of the power of agri-business to generate tourism and tax dollars, have gradually begun loosening some of the temperance-era laws that have lingered for decades, restricting who can distill what, and where.
    With its abundance of grain and fruit, the Midwest stands poised to capitalize on the confluence of trends unlike any other region and could, in time, come to rival California, currently the leader in small-scale distilling, experts said.
    Small, private distilleries are opening at a rate of about 10 to 20 a year. There are about 100 across the country. Some are attached to wineries, restaurants and breweries, or, increasingly, are located on farms. Though there is no precise definition for what the industry refers to as artisanal or craft distilleries, experts say they are distinguished from mass distillers by their small scale, their use of local and often organic ingredients, and the experimental quality of some of their products, like seasonal pumpkin-infused vodka.
    As a result of their individuality and regional differences, the distillers offer spirits that run the gamut in terms of quality and taste. Some are one- or two-person backyard operations; others are state-of-the-art laboratories built at great expense.
    "There's a gigantic discrepancy between the huge companies and a guy who only wants to sell vodka to Minneapolis - and he can make a pretty good living doing just that," said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. "Twenty years ago, we never dreamed this would be happening."
    Mr. Fox, once rejected by banks, now finds himself sought after by people looking for investment opportunities. His best seller, Most Wanted vodka, is a hit at local liquor stores. His ultra-premium brand, Fox vodka, is served at some of the finest restaurants in his region.
    "Customers like that it's from right here," said Dustin Hundley, owner of the Metropolitan Steak House in nearby Leavenworth. "We did a taste test against some of the better-known brands and it was just as clean and crisp, if not better. We run out of it."
    Mr. Fox's sales are driven mostly by word-of-mouth locally, and beyond the state through a network of microdistilling aficionados.
    "I get calls from all across the nation asking, Where can I buy your vodka?" Mr. Fox said. "I say, You've got to come to Kansas. Who grows the best grain in the world?"
    On a farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Jeff Quint is similarly enthusiastic about his spirits. "I'll put our gin up against anybody's, in any city," he said. "Our gin rocks."
    Mr. Quint was an accountant in Minneapolis six years ago when he felt a desire to move back to his roots in eastern Iowa. He planted grapes and opened a winery. But in doing research for the wine business, he said, he saw even greater potential in distilling. So he made a trip to Germany to study old world techniques, learned how to operate a still, and bought one.
    In addition to gin, Mr. Quint's business, Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, makes vodka, brandy, grappa and rum, among other liquors.
    "The distillery has turned out to be the most promising part of our business," he said. "We're finding our own way on this."
    Some of the new distilleries are meant to be stylish downtown destinations, even though they use ingredients fresh from the farm.

    Infused Vodka

    Sub Rosa Tarragon Infused Vodka is 45% abv. / 90 proof and is made in small batches, each individually batch numbered and labeled. It has just been released in Oregon where it is available on a limited basis, and can be special ordered in Washington. Availability in California is coming soon, then the world.
    I used to spend a lot of time in the wilderness working as a licensed wilderness guide and Outward Bound instructor. Many times as we made our way through the wilderness, we would push through patches of wild tarragon. The sweet, spicy, tangy, anise-like, musty, and herbaceous smell would rise up around us. To liven up my meals I learned to forage for lots of wild edibles. One of my favorites to use as an herb with dinner or as an herb tea to settle the stomach or for colds and coughs is wild tarragon. It mostly grows in the Mid-West and Western parts of the US, but is occasionally found in the East as well. Sadly the flavor of wild tarragon is undependable and varies greatly, unlike the French tarragon you find in the market.
    The main ingredient infusing the Tarragon Sub Rosa is fresh, locally grown in Oregon, French tarragon. To balance and build on the spicy and complex anise taste of the tarragon is a dash of fennel and a hint of mint. The aroma and flavor remind me of pushing my way through those patches of wild tarragon in the wilderness. It is delightfully spicy and complex with that unmistakable smell of fresh tarragon and hints of the fennel and mint, combined with herbaceous and floral notes, with a hint of musk.
    This is an unusual and compelling infused vodka, unlike any you may have tried before. It is actually in a class by itself, more grown up, refined, and savory, not sweet. I enjoy it ice cold as a sipping shot with dinner, on the rocks, and it makes a killer Bloody Mary mixed with V-8 juice. I think that it will soon be one of the new weapons in the top mixologist's arsenal for creating unusual and interesting cocktails. I am now thinking about trying it to deglaze the fond in my sauté pans for making pan sauces, and I wonder what it would be like in the steaming broth for mussels and clams.
    While I was sitting down smelling and tasting the spirit, the aroma was so compelling that I actually tracked down the distiller, Mike Sherwood at Sub Rosa Spirits in Oregon, and gave him a call to tell him how good, and different, I think his Sub Rosa Tarragon is. (I actually caught him as he was out in a vineyard harvesting and crushing grapes.) I can't wait to try the next infused vodka in his line up, Sub Rosa Saffron.

    Absinthe is now legal.

    TTB has approved distilled spirits labels which contain the term absinthe. For more information e-mail the TTB compliance office

    Water of Life in Mattaw, WA.

    Water of Life Springs from Washington Distillery
    by Shirley Wentworth
    Columbia Basin Farmer editor

    MATTAWA, Washington
    Eau-de-vie. Water of life.
    Whether in French or in English, the phrase water of life refers to newly distilled spirits. In the world of distilled spirits - as in beverage alcohol - the product is the result of a process that transforms fruit from its simple, fresh-picked form to fermentation into wine before being subjected to a bit of alchemy by way of distillation.
    Veteran vintner and wine business innovator Berle "Rusty" Figgins, Jr., currently senior winemaker and viticulturist for Cave B Estate Winery near George, is on the precipice of bringing a new industry to Washington. He's on the threshold of becoming the state's first craft distiller of fine brandy.
    In March 2006, Figgins sketched out his own proprietary design for a sophisticated piece of equipment that he insists should be called a distillation apparatus, avoiding any associations with the primitive stills that produce moonshine or other forms of rough, clandestinely produced spirits.
    Brandy, itself, is the aged distillate derived from any fruit wine.
    In Figgins' design, wine is transferred by means of an electric pump into the still, filling the bottom chamber, or pot, to become heated, thus liberating the ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, within. Liquid ethanol volatilizes when heated, and its vapor rises into a large sphere perched on top of the pot. As the temperature holds steady at 172 degrees Fahrenheit (212 degrees is the boiling point of water), the vapor descends back into the pot, returning to a liquid form, and then back to the sphere where it becomes vapor again. This process, called reflux, takes hours, and the metamorphosis of liquid to vapor takes place hundreds of times at the molecular level, thus concentrating the stream of alcohol. The spirit vapor exits the sphere, rises into a pipe that crests over and down (the swan's neck) to descend into the condenser. As it goes through 30 vertical condenser tubes, each cooled by cold running water, it immediately transforms back into liquid form. What then emerges is what the distilling trade calls eau-de-vie, the young, crystal-clear, ethanol-rich spirit which, when matured in barrels, becomes brandy.
    Figgins only uses only the hearts, or middle portion, of what is collected, which goes into oak barrels for aging. The first few ounces that come out, the heads, contain the poisonous methyl alcohol, or methanol, and the final portion, the tails, is too weak, containing excessive water. Both the heads and the tails are discarded, and the still is drained down to accept the next batch of wine. The beauty of Figgins' process is that it does not require a second or third distillation to produce the concentrated alcohol. He has thus created an energy-efficient system, streamlined by his proprietary still design which reduces the amount of energy, labor and time needed to produce a fine brandy.
    Oregon already has 12 distilleries producing fine spirits, followed by five in Idaho. Washington has but one, but Figgins believes Washington is destined to become as well-known for fine spirits as it is for wine.
    "Especially if I help it along," he said.
    Several decades ago, Washington had a fledgling wine industry; it struggled to make France and California take it seriously. No one really believed that a Washington winery, using Washington-grown grapes, could produce a truly fine wine. Of course, this has changed.
    Washington's made a name for itself in the wine business, helped along by a handful of early industry leaders, and Figgins believes it can also make its mark in spirits.
    Figgins, a Walla Walla native, comes from a line of vintners and was educated in New South Wales, Australia's oldest wine-producing state. He has already proven his innovative spirit when he was the first in the Walla Walla Valley to grow the Syrah grape in 1993, making it into an award-winning wine, and earning him yet another nickname, the Shah of Syrah.
    Figgins chose the Mattawa area as it perfectly represents a place where it is possible to run a vertically integrated operation. As is typical in Cognac, France, grapes are grown, fermented, distilled and bottled all at the same estate, producing some of the world's most acclaimed brandies. For now, Figgins' evening and weekend venture is located in what he believes is just the right starting place, a Port of Mattawa business incubator building in the heart of what many consider to be some of Washington's best apple and grape land. The Wahluke Slope in southern Grant County, which now enjoys federal appellation recognition, supplies a commanding portion of the state's best apples and grapes.
    He also thinks he's got the perfect apple variety - an accidental hybrid that turned up in a Wenatchee-area orchard after a rogue grain of pollen met a blossom on a Red Delicious apple tree. The resultant chance seedling produced an apple variety called Cameo - a Washington original.
    "It's going to be a great brandy apple," Figgins said, commenting on its pronounced and somewhat uncommon balance of both sugar and acidity. "It is very crisp-tasting and its higher acidity will make a more aromatic brandy, and because it is a late-season apple, it is also sweeter, yielding a higher volume. The challenge for growers is to retain acid as fruit ripens because acidity tends to fade as sugar content increases. Achieving the two together produces a more flavorful and aromatic distillate."
    The name of the brandy? Why, Cameo-de-Vie, of course. What else?
    Figgins reveres such names as Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados. These are regional names that are synonymous with the high-quality brandy they produce. He hopes to eventually attain the same sort of provincial association with his spirits, all derived from Grant County agriculture.
    Figgins' plans for his company, named Dynamic Alambic Artisan Distillers, are not centered on apple brandy production alone, though. He'll also create a fine grape brandy under the Clos Sainte-Rose brand. The brand will pay homage to a period in Walla Walla-area history when French-Canadian fur trappers, working for the Hudson Bay Company, lived and traded harmoniously with the indigenous Walla Walla, Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. The Sainte Rose Mission, established in 1856, was central to the lives of both the native and the visiting people as it attended to their spiritual needs. A previous mission, led by Marcus Whitman, failed to unite the two cultures as successfully as the Sainte Rose Mission did.
    Figgins might be of Irish derivation, but this particular Figgins also wants to honor the Italian side of his heritage by making an Italian-style line of spirits. Creating a grappa, along with traditional sambuca and limoncello liqueurs, is also in the plan, and these will be bottled under an as-yet undisclosed label.
    While he waits for his distilling license, he's moving forward with plans to be in full production by spring or summer 2008. This promises to yield quite a grand-opening party, full of eau-de-vie and other high spirits, no doubt. 

    ADI membership

    --The 2008 ADI membership form will be mailed in late December.
    --The 2008 Whiskey conference form will be mailed in mid-January. (The conference will be April 7,8 & 9th in Louisville.)
    --The 2008 Scotland whisky tour will be May 6-10th.
    --In January, details on the both up-coming events will be mailed to everyone. Forms for the events will also be posted on the DISTILLING.com
    Bill Owens

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    --To obtain TTB list of DSPs go to: http://www.ttb.gov/foia//err.shtml

    --To obtain TTB statistics on distilling go to: www.ttb.gov then scroll down to "spirits" and then the "year".
    --To obtain Distilled Spirits Laws and Regulations go to: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/spirits_regs.shtml

    --To obtain label regulations go to: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam.shtml distilled spirits manual circular.

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