Over the last four days I feel like I've been given a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. I've been making whisky at the historic George Washington Distillery and Gristmill on the Mt. Vernon Estate. I basically stopped in for a tour and volunteered to help if they ever would like an extra hand. The manager agreed and two weeks later I'm splitting wood and tending the fire for their 18th century distilling operation. That of course was fun. The staff at the Army Logistics University was flexible and understanding of this volunteer opportunity so I've managed to spend four days with some of the best historians and distillers in the U.S. I just feel so blessed for the opportunity.
You never know where you will end up in this life. Four years ago I was deployed. Two years ago I was unemployed. Today I was making whisky at the George Washington Distillery in Mt. Vernon. Yesterday I was chewed out in an email. Today I was thanked in an email for making the best whisky anyone has ever tried.
I started this blog to share the experience, but I've also found it to have a secondary function. That is journaling. It's pretty amazing to me to be able to catalog what I'm thinking at the moment. I don't really plan these posts out. That is why some are short and some are long and there is no set time limit between the posts. I was looking back on my Jan 29 post and reading what I wrote. January was a real hard month. I was sleeping in my car (whisky in the trunk) in Kansas City parking lots and knocking on doors to get sales in between making, bottling, labeling, and helping my wife with our newborn. It wasn't very glamorous but in hindsight, it made me hungry and it made me realize that I really need to be doing more than making a great product. I better be on the path to something that is substantial. Stay tuned.
Here is the nice part about still having a job while you are making whisky part time; you've got options. Truly, what needs to be done next is pretty straight forward: make it craftier. What that means for me is one of three things: start malting our own barley, making our own barrels, or put in a grist mill. Of course the most expensive is in reverse order. A grist mill will mean buying land and building a 200k + facility. A cooperage will cost about 40k and is pretty far outside of my current abilities. A malting facility is a little cheaper at 25k, but is even further outside of my expertise. However, this is one of the three things that I'll be doing next year. Yes. When I say I'm going to do something, you can pretty well bet your paycheck that it's going to happen. Comments? Probably not. I don't think I have a single subscriber to this blog and don't give a damn either.
What is craft? What is artisanal? How important is "traditional" and what precisely does that mean in an ever evolving industry? For me it has come down to physical location and available resources. I don't make bourbon as I don't really think that I should even remotely be on the same level as Beam-Suntory, Sazerac, Heaven Hill, etc. I DO make whisky from local resources though. Yeah, I've sold some pretty young (one week to one year) old whisky but I haven't charged anything over 30 bucks either. I personally think it would be bullshit if anyone does if it isn't at least a year old. I use local grains. I use spring water from my own spring. We hickory smoke our grains, and make our own charcoal out of hickory. I'm a rural distillery and none of my neighbors grow organic, non-gmo grains. Maybe that sounds awesome on a label, but I'd rather patronize the farmers that I go to church with instead of having a cool logo on my bottle. I don't just make whisky either. We have all kinds of stuff sitting in bond: Apple Brandy, Strawberry Brandy (damn that one hurt the wallet), Straight Rye, Grape Brandy, and rum. The rum sure as hell wasn't made from locally made molasses, but the molasses was free if I could get it off of the truck. So far it's the only thing we have not made from Ozark grown produce. We have got about 8 barrel variations as well: recoopered, new white American oak, new toasted, 3x used wine, new uncharred, etc. Only time will tell which one will taste better and I'll wait as long as it damn well takes to find out. I still have a day job so that I can feed this obsession too. I wake up at 5am every morning, listen to the "snap crackle and pop" of tired joints, and put on the uniform of a U.S. Soldier. When I have a long weekend, vacation, or a holiday, I go back home to my Ozark holler and make liquor. So tell me this: Is it craft? Is it artisanal? Better yet, call me one of these days, set up a time for a tour, and try it. Ultimately what I'm asking is this: Is it phenomenal? If not then let me know because my dedication is to making mind blowing great spirits and I don't care if it's done one cup or one thousand gallons at a time. What are your thoughts? I honestly don't think that this topic is really hit on enough. I think that if you are going to bring a product to market it should be to answer a problem. For me it's because of my deep love of the Ozarks. I wan't the end user experience the terrior of the Ozark region of America. I believe that it is underrepresented and should be a distinctive category in spirits. Let me be real clear. I love the Ozarks and think that we should stand out in the spirits category. I think that is something that we can all raise our glasses to.
I am fascinated with legacy technology that still works well. I am in Virginia for a few months and stopped by the Mt Vernon Estate just outside of D.C. It was phenomenal to say the least. One thing that really sticks out though is the distillery. Of course my interest would pull me there, but truly the best part of the distillery is hands down the grist mill. I can't describe with justice the attention to historical detail and craftsmanship of this mill, so please visit their website, visit them in person, and don't be a bitch. Pay the 100 bucks for the pint of whisky that they sell. you cannot get anything else like it anywhere else in the world. I'd pay 200 if that is what they charged. I digress...... The mill is powered by a two mile race from a pond. It seems to me that this is the next logical step for a lot of distilleries. Want to go green? Yep, no fossil fuels required to make your ground up corn. Also, look back in to the history of distilleries. They were always next to a good water source AND a grist mill. I think that if I'm able to this is something that I'd like to incorporate into our process.
As I mentioned in previous blog posts, young whisky sucks. Even if you start with a 159 proof, near grain neutral spirit, you'll find that with less than six months that it's harsh. Harsh is probably a kind word. I think one of my louder than life uncles used the term wildcat piss for young whisky (moonshine). Between a year and 2 years you have color, vanilla, oak, and hints of caramel, but that is just about where the complexity stops and branding begins.
Let's take Ole Smoky Charred Moonshine, which is grain neutral spirit aged in oak barrels for 3-4 months. It's a heapin helpin of good ole fashioned Americana on the surface. Founded by college friends and situated at the foot of the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg Tennessee, it sounds like the American dream come true. The bottle (if a mason jar could be called such) just states that it is bottled by Ole Smoky. That means that the liquor could probably come from Indiana or nearby Kentucky. It tastes like oak and rubbing alcohol. Seriously. I don't think I would even disinfect an open wound with it. However, with a few million, you can manage to get national distribution, marketing, POS displays, and celebrity or big brand endorsements (a la Harley-Davidson).
Personally, it pisses me off. Not because of the success; not because they didn't live on hotdogs and ramen while they were crafting a superb spirit. I root for all things that Ole smoky says it is. What pisses me off was that they didn't take the hard right. They didn't put the quality first, They didn't hunt down the best local ingredients. They don't sell what they make. What I'm getting at here is that it has never been a quality centric product. Perhaps the ma and pa kettle packaging will pay off and they will keep making money hand over fist. It's hard to say.
What this comes down to for me is that they didn't take the hard right and by God we will. I know that this sounds like a rant, and in a way it is. However, really I'm not complaining but instead just sharing my thought process of what I think a great brand should be doing. Really, I'm documenting this process of how Ozark Mountain Distilling is becoming one of the most valuable brands in the U.S. Yeah, I said it. Mark my words; we will be one of the most valuable brands in the U.S. I honestly don't know if we will be the most profitable, but by drawing this line in the sand I think we are doing what is right, what is ethical, and what will make the greatest product. Chances are, it's going to take years for this to happen. Look at Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Laphroaig, etc. These companies grew organically, over time, and grew because they made a great product. I'm patient. I don't care if it takes me until I'm 80. I only care that it happens. Think these other "craft" guys are looking a quarter century down the road? Probably not. It's a hard right and we are taking it.
Today was extremely crappy in terms of productivity. I had one goal: fix this god forsaken grinder and get it out of my distillery bay. Did that happen? Definitely not. I picked up this 1970s piece of vintage machinery from one of the local Amish farmers for 200 bucks with no guarantees of anything. The hammers looked ok so I figured what the heck. I don't have the money to buy a new one so I better have the time to fix an old one. It needed a bearing on one of the augers and the screen un-stuck on the mill. After about 6 trips to the local farm supply store, all of my parts were sourced, the busted up rim replaced, and I was in business. I thought. Misty and the girls were all feeling a little under the weather. My infant is cutting teeth, so add that on and you have one cranky (and needy!) baby. I helped around the house and with the girls with interruptions of fixing the grinder basically. At 830 pm, Misty looked miserable so I told her to go on to bed and I'd take care of the girls. At that point, I gave in and decided to enjoy the rest of this day. I rocked the youngest to sleep, put her on the bed, and then me and a 4 year old made a chocolate cake before brushing teeth and a bedtime story. I was a hero, and truly enjoyed the rest of my day. Sometimes we need to appreciate the moments that we have and actually live in them. Most people are present physically in the present, but are mentally in the future or past. Sometimes, maybe most times it would be best to just actually live now and realize that yesterday is gone and tomorrow can only happen tomorrow.
Disclaimer: this is a long blog post!
So what happened? For about six months you saw us everywhere. I was hitting it every day on twitter, instagram, Facebook, youtube, and this blog on the whisky holler. Then the online content just DROPPED. Well, here is the truth: I think that I was taking this business down the wrong path. There were a couple things that really pushed me to put all of this on a hold. I'm going to cover the first one in this post. The first was the crushing financial/time drain from promotions. You see, everybody wants to trade their space for your dollars. We did whiskey fest, sugar rush, grand openings, tastings, and the list goes on. Some of it costs money, and some of it cost me my time. My hopes on all of this was that it would translate into sales, and for a brand that already has a marketing budget that would be correct. However, we are an unknown and wherever we went we were just interesting and that was about it. Interesting doesn't sell young whisky in the long run and for the most part all I managed to do was give away a lot of whisky. It was fun, but didn't really create a return on investment- and it cost me a lot of time. I mash, distill, barrel, bottle, sell, account, and somehow manage to help my wife with out with our two young daughters. My cash flow is basically nil. This endeavor has been on my own dime and credit so at the end of the day, my profits from sales cover putting up whisky in barrels as well as payroll, excise taxes, and my personal mortgage payment. After we got the building, rick house, equipment, and barrels set up, there wasn't a hell of a lot left. I met with some "investors", but what they were after was different from what I was after. Here is what I'm getting at: young whisky sucks. A big sorry to all of my fellow craft/micro distillers (seriously, I feel your pain). I started selling whisky that was less than a year and it wasn't anything that I really liked to drink. I decided it was wrong. I haven't distributed (wholesale) any aged whisky since April because it wasn't ready. I tried advanced aging techniques, and it was good, but it wasn't phenomenal. I know in my heart of hearts, and my pallet confirms, that there is nothing better than OLD whisky. The only problem here is that we started distilling in July 2016. The MINIMUM age of good whisky, and ask any true afficionado, is four years. It just takes that much time in the oak. Period. You can't cheat father time. There is no short cut for fantastic whisky. I'll say it again: THERE IS NO SHORT CUT FOR FANTASTIC WHISKY.
Also, let me be frank. That thirty to fifty dollar bottle of craft whisky is a rip off in some ways. Look, I'm not saying that they are actively trying to cheat you, but they really can't afford to sell it for any less than that. They have the same problems that I do. They need to sell in order to keep their doors open and time is money. So what is sitting on the shelf from a lot of small producers is whisky that is under two years old. It's brown and has a lot of the characteristics of great whisky but doesn't have the complexity that comes from good ole fashioned time. I've decided to not push out whisky that isn't ready. If I'm going to charge thirty dollars for a bottle of whisky, it's going to be worth forty. I believe that you should always try to give more- always. Call it an old fashioned background, stupid, stubborn, or whatever you want, but I want to be in the reorder business, not the sales business.
I'm now back on Active Duty in the Army. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the Army. I have deep, deep respect for the military, serving my country, and absolutely love serving my Soldiers through leadership. The Army has taken me from a nobody hillbilly from the Missouri Ozarks to a Captain in the Army commanding Soldiers and responsible for millions of dollars of equipment. However, all I really want to do is make whisky here in the Ozarks. These are my true loves. I could write pages and pages on both of these subjects but I'll save you for now. In the end, I need to feed this business. I have corn to purchase, and a business loan to pay for. In three years, this business loan will be paid for and more whisky made. Provided I have survived another four years of active military service and haven't been killed by a mortar round in Afghanistan, I will have five year old whisky ready to sell. I think its a good tradeoff.
That is how much I believe in what I'm doing. I have had a few detractors tell me that I'm quitting. No, it isn't quitting. This is hard. I'm leaving a log cabin with a live spring sitting on 30 beautiful acres in the ozarks. I love my family and being able to see my mom whenever I want. I love barbecues on the 4th of July and going fishing. I love not shaving. I love going over to my neighbors and watching them practice roping calves. I love going to my neighbors and getting fresh milk from (still warm, fresh from the udder). I'm trading this to put a bottle of five year old whisky on the shelf. I'm not quitting, I'm digging in. I'm taking the hard right over the misunderstood wrong. I spent most of my first daughters life deployed. I missed first words, first steps, the first bite of ice-cream, and a lot of firsts in desert heat. I'll probably miss a few firsts in the coming years. What I'm getting at is that this is the hard right. White Mule Distillery is going to take it so that you can literally sip on the very best of the Ozarks. I hope you think that it's worth what it costs you.
This week I spoke with Leah Hutchinson at TAPI USA. Tapi manufactures closures for bottles, but her depth of experience within the industry reaches far beyond the lids to your bottles. Fill up your Glencairn and learn about this little detail that can make a big difference.
Let's be honest with each other here. Most of your micro, or "craft" distilleries are probably buying cheap whisky and spirits, repackaging it, and calling it "hand made". There is a right way, which is usually the hard way, and a wrong way. Jack Daniels, in my mind is impressive. They make their own barrels, they cultivate their own yeast, and they draw their water from an artisan spring (for over 150 years). They make a good product because they control every step of their production process, and that sounds pretty "crafty" to me. In this episode we talk with Chris Fletcher, the assistant master distiller for Jack Daniels and get his take on what craft whisky really is.
There is a reason that I wanted to open a distillery in the Missouri Ozarks and it has a lot to do with the State Government. I wanted to be in the Ozarks, for sure, but I did need to narrow it down to either Missouri or Arkansas. Both of these states are near and dear to my heart but Missouri ultimately won out due to the fact that their laws are easier to navigate, understand, and be compliant with. Today I interviewed some very knowledgeable and helpful gents at the MO Alcohol and Tobacco Control branch of the Department of Public Safety. Listen for some real good advice for when you are working on your state application.
A little intro as to where this blog and podcast are going. Also, because you've gotten this far down the blog and can read, please enjoy a bottle of whisky on me. This offer expires on November 11 2017. Happy Veterans Day.