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
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
"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
"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.
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
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,
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
||Absinthe is now legal.
TTB has approved distilled spirits labels
which contain the term absinthe. For more
information e-mail the TTB compliance
||Water of Life in Mattaw, WA.
Water of Life Springs from Washington
by Shirley Wentworth
Columbia Basin Farmer editor
Eau-de-vie. Water of
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
--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.)
Scotland whisky tour will be May 6-10th.
--In January, details on the both
will be mailed to everyone. Forms for the
events will also be
posted on the DISTILLING.com
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