Arkansas’ New Whiskey Rebellion
words: Dwain Hebda
images:Phil Brandon, Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau; Gary & Jon Taylor
The first thing that hits you when you enter Little Rock’s Rock Town Distillery is the aromas. Just two fingers into the front door of the building — anchoring a nondescript but up-and-coming warehouse neighborhood — the unmistakable waft envelops you. Vanilla and oak and caramel tug and pull at your senses in this space, a former paint factory and vanguard of the new whiskey movement in Arkansas.
They do tours and tastings twice a day here, six days a week, three on Saturday. About a dozen visitors have turned out on this overcast weekday afternoon — a Wisconsin family in town for a visit, two sets of fawning newlyweds, a grizzled old-timer with a waxed mustache that’s the envy of an abrasive hipster foursome. It’s a relatively tame cocktail compared to some of the groups that drop in.
“We had that group from Boston, remember?” says tour guide Kristen as her bar-mates nod. “They were a lot of fun but they were crazy.”
Rock Town has been around less than a decade but has made the most of its time in the cask. The company’s product line has grown to more than twenty variations of bourbon, gin, rum, vodka and corn whiskey, one or more of which can be had in sixteen states, Canada and Great Britain.
“We started out with vodka and gin and migrated to whiskey at the same time,” says founder Phil Brandon, fifty-one. “Different distilling techniques are used for the different products and having to learn what the regulations are, what the laws are, to stay within those requirements and then learn how to operate a still to the best of its abilities — we were lucky enough to be able to do all of that.
“What set us apart was just the quality of it and then the story behind it that we’re an Arkansas distillery, distilling Arkansas ingredients and making Arkansas’ first-ever whiskey.”
The tour winds into the barrel-aging warehouse where charred white oak barrels made in Hot Springs rest three-high on custom-built racks. Aging allows the wood to work its magic imparting color and flavor and mellowing the whiskey’s edges until they’re round and roasty on the tongue.
“We try to use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, but we can’t do it 100 percent; that’s not really a feasible thing,” Phil says, noting he still stays close to home on ingredients, such as the Louisiana molasses used to make rum.
Rock Town also has a green streak — used barrels get recycled at local breweries looking to put a boozy spin on a brew and spent mash is sold to a local rancher as feed for what must be the mellowest cows in the nation.
Beyond sales growth and a hatful of industry honors, the Little Rock company is also the bona fide granddaddy of the craft spirits movement in Arkansas. Phil launched the business, the first legal distillery since Prohibition, in 2010 after being laid off from his job as a computer engineer. In so doing, he cut the blueprint for an industry still just getting its dewclaws.
In fact, there are currently only two licensed Arkansas distilleries in full production. The other, White River Distilling, is in Gassville, a 2,100-person burg just a couple of hiccups outside of Mountain Home. Run by the father-son team of Gary and Jon Taylor, White River launched in 2013.
Gary, sixty-six, was attracted to the challenge of making a superior product and intrigued by the history attached to the distiller’s art.
“If you go back to the 1700s, one of the financial things that built this country was the tax on alcohol. And you can follow that through the history of the United States,” he says. “George Washington was a whiskey-maker. He made rye whiskey, and there was two years that he made 10,000 gallons of it. What I read was, he sold it for fifty cents a gallon. You put that in today’s terms, that’s half a million bucks.”
The Taylors tinker with new formulas as they continue to build a steady in-state following for their four varieties of corn whiskey. If you want to get on their prickly side, refer to it as “moonshine,” the harsh hat-lifter cooked up by bootleggers.
“I stay away from the word moonshine; anymore, moonshine is really used as a marketing term,” Gary growls. “None of the licensed distillers that can manufacture legally are making moonshine, by definition. By definition, it’s an untaxed liquor.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Oh it’s not strong enough, it’s not moonshine.’ Well, I’m not selling moonshine. If I get something that’s one hundred-twenty, one hundred-thirty proof, you’re going to buy one bottle of it for the next ten years. If I’ve got it at ninety-proof or sixty-proof, we want you to enjoy it, but then you’re going to come back.”
White River enjoys one distinct competitive advantage, that being their water which steeps naturally through hundreds of feet of limestone. It’s the kind of water that made Jack Daniels famous. For Jon, thirty-five, the enjoyment is combining such quality ingredients experimentally to create something of mass appeal from the ground up.
“When we do a new flavor, we don’t go by just my taste buds or my dad’s taste buds, we’ll let several different people try it and get an overall consensus of what people think,” Jon says. “We try to pick something kind of in the middle of the spectrum taste wise. The whole idea was we wanted to make a product that everybody can enjoy and everybody can afford.”
Arkansas’ other licensed distiller, Core Brewing & Distilling Company in Springdale, plans a 2017 opening for its showpiece Fort Smith facility. Arkansas beer drinkers are well-acquainted with the outfit’s rapidly expanding craft beer empire, and Core’s leadership is banking on that brand loyalty to carry over to its whiskey.
“We find most people who are looking for good quality beer are looking for the same in spirits,” says Jay Richardson, vice president. “Our focus is on bringing some real attention to the state of Arkansas and show that we can do some fantastic beer and even better spirits.”
Core has been working toward getting the distilling side of its business up and running for a while now. The company bought the 50,000-square-foot former Southwest Times Record building in Fort Smith in 2015 and has since been renovating it to include distillery operations, a cooperage, and a tasting room, plus an additional 20,000 square feet of retail space. That project, as well as the permitting process, has been the endeavor’s steepest challenge thus far.
“It took us a while to get the licensing to become a distiller in Arkansas; once we got that the rest of it has been pretty easy, to be quite honest with you,” Jay says. “We’ve got a ton of white oak here in the state (for making barrels), and we’ve already got distribution channels that are looking forward to the product.”
Said product will be marketed under the Hanging Judge label, a nod to Judge Isaac C. Parker whose reputation for assigning capital punishment in frontier Fort Smith earned him the nickname. Both Jay and company founder Jesse Core hail from Fort Smith and were happy to memorialize their hometown.
“We really wanted to play on that Wild West hanging judge who was in Fort Smith and really make (the whiskey) Fort Smith’s own,” Jay says.
One of the challenges of starting in this business is what goes into the barrel today won’t hit shelves for years — in Core’s case, at least five — so generating initial inventory takes some doing. Core has been running scaled-down distilling in its brewery in order to have product available when Fort Smith opens. There’s also been some legislative work to do, namely to change a state law prohibiting Core from selling its spirits through its growing number of company-owned pubs.
Despite the daunting to-do list, Jay said it’s a job like no other.
“It’s just a cool environment. I’ve been in a lot of different industries and this one, there’s nothing like getting to meet people at the level of ‘hey let’s have a beer and talk about what we can do going forward.’ The product that we have is, in my opinion, a superior product. When you have something solid like that, it just makes your job so much easier.”
Rock Town Distilling
1216 E 6th Street, Little Rock
White River Distillery
150 Nancy Street, Gassville
Core Brewing & Distilling Co.
2470 Lowell Rd, Springdale