Hey Generation-Y: think the temperance movement of the late 18th and early 19th century don't affect you today? Think again!
Oftentimes, the degree of prohibition-era regulation of liquor production in a given state will dictate the style of its microdistilleries. Stated more plainly: those laws decide what you can find to drink right now. In places where regulation is still adhering to ancient and outmoded principles, one will find many microdistilleries in out-of-the-way, half-forgotten office parks on the outskirts of a city. In essence, they're hidden away from the public that the state seeks to protect from that social sin of liquor. Barred from serving the public, these pioneers worry about finding distributors and they worry about finding customers. For all that craft-distilling is said to follow the microbrewery movement, these distilleries are vastly different from what we know today as the local brewery with cheerful college kids serving racks of tasters with buffalo wings and onion rings.
But in some places, things are a little more laid-back. Idaho, for example. In Idaho, the laws are a bit different... different because of Kevin Settles and the Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery.
Far from the garage-style micro-distillery, Bardenay was planned and built on a model that more closely adheres to the microbrewery plan: a restaurant that distills its own spirits and serves directly to the customer. With that plan in mind, Settles found himself squarely at odds with decade-old state law. Undaunted after learning Idaho state law barred distillers from serving the public, he hired a lobbyist - -the same lobbyist that successfully legalized the microbrewery in Idaho - -and set about to change that law.
And Settles knew something about that business. He began his career not making liquor but instead making hard cider (Seven Sisters Hard Cider to be exact) in the heady days of the microbrewery movement. In 1996 he left that world behind him and began to give serious effort towards a vision for a distillery that would serve drinks right in its own restaurant (then forbidden by law). It took a full year of battling the Venerated Politicians of Boise but eventually he was given license in 1999 to open the very first microdistillery anywhere that could (legally) serve patrons on its own property. In the heart of downtown Boise-considered the home turf of a large Basque population (immigrant group from Spain) - -he opened the first Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery in 2000 (that nation's first!) as master distiller while other partners managed the food side of the business.
And he's been successful at it. Cash flow is the death of so many of these operations, he proclaims. To hear him explain it, any distillery has chronic cash flow problems when they produce a lot of inventory and then have to wait to sell it and gain revenue. By selling through his restaurant, Bardenay is able to avoid some of those cash flow problems... that and they're not so ambitious as to grow beyond their capabilities. For now, the spirits are only available in Idaho but the restaurant has managed to expand to three separate locations (Boise, Eagle, and Coeur d'Alene) and will ultimately expand west to Washington and Oregon. Each location has its own still and each producing on site.
This is not to say that Bardenay is totally free of the more interesting permutations of liquor laws that afflict and enliven distillers' lives everywhere. For example, he cannot sell a customer a bottle of spirits from his restaurant... only a drink. (Does this help contain the spread of evil? one wishes to ask the Boise effete.) Further, the liquor that he bottles on site can't be put on the bar shelves to serve those drinks until have been re-purchased from the State of Idaho.
Yes, you read that right: as one of the state-owned and controlled liquor states in the nation where all spirits must be purchased from the government-run stores, Bardenay crafts and bottles the spirits, wheels them outside the premises to sell to the state, buys them right back from the state (at an 80+% markup), and then immediately wheels the stuff right back into the restaurant to serve waiting customers.
Nonetheless, this kind of model frees Settles from worrying about distributors - he distributes only to the state and expects the rest of his customers to come to him. It obviously also creates an immediate customer base willing to sample spirits made in Idaho right on site. After all, who goes to a microbrewery and orders a Bud Lite without at least trying the local beer first?
And here creates yet another situation where Settles forged his own way not allowing the marketplace to dictate terms to him. Every craft-distiller is fiercely loyal to their local community and local ingredients - the market thrives on the buy local mentality of many consumers today. Settles is perfectly aware that many people would shout Idaho First! and buy a local spirit even if that meant an inferior product.
No, Settles says. We want them to be able to purchase an Idaho spirit and not feel that they had to 'trade down' in order to do it. Bardenay doesn't rectify, it doesn't private-label, it doesn't import, and it offers a current range of only three products after over 10 years of business: a rum, a gin, and a vodka.
In another striking example, in a state renowned for its potatoes and its grains, Bardenay produces all three of its spirits from a Hawaiian brown sugar cane base. These are some of the very few gins and vodkas on the market that are made from sugar. Why? As ever, Settles has a common sense answer:
Because I distill right here in the restaurant. And have you ever smelled fermenting potatoes? They smell like poop! I can't have customers in a restaurant smelling that. Fermenting sugar smells like nice warm bread... and we like that in our restaurant.
Settles goes his own way in regards to other craft distillers. He agrees that there's a certain collegiality among fellow distillers... but at the same time he's reluctant to share all of his secrets. I do that stuff... I go to the American Distillers Institute convention about every other year. But it took me eight years of tweaking the recipe to get the vodka right. I'm not going to just give that secret away!
But that doesn't mean Settles isn't generous with his craft. At his still, he keeps vials labeled heads and tails (the first volume of distillate out of the still and the last volume out of the still) along with the heart or desirable volume from the center cut. As seriously as he takes his craft and the quality of his spirits, his tastings for amateurs and customers is almost like a chemistry lesson. One learns that while every still can isolate and extract alcohol ("distilling"), not all types of alcohol are desirable. The heads, as we were quick to find out, contain Acetone - OC(CH3)2 (a popular solvent), Acetaldehyde -CH3CHO (said to cause hangovers), and Methanol - CH3OH (legendary wood alcohol). On tasting, these alcohols scald the throat and needle the tongue. The "mouthfeel" can be oddly oily. Yuck. In contrast, the heart of the distillate is almost pure Ethanol -C2H2OH (grain alcohol). Warm without burning; clean without oil; and the "heart" of any good rum, gin, or vodka.
People don't know what they're tasting... even the professionals, Settles says. But I'm the distiller and I can show them what they're tasting. I've had professional tasters come in here and say, 'Yes... that's what I don't like in that stuff I've tried.' They knew what they didn't like it but they didn't know why they didn't like it.
And how about those judges and competitions?
I talked to one of those judges. Do you know how many of those entries they have to taste in a day? I know they spit - -they're professionals and they have to- - but your palate is dead after all that. One admitted to me that it literally hurts to put the product in your mouth at the end of the day. When palate fatigue sets in, the sweetest product always wins. And that's flawed!
Instead of using competition results for assessing his own spirits, Settles hangs out at his bar and literally watches his customers' reactions as they taste his drinks. That's my feedback, he says. He also is the head of a 7-member Gin Drinking Panel that monitors the quality of his gin. With three different stills in three separate locations they meet as needed and sample the product to maintain consistency. Despite any perils that may come with it, it's a duty embraced with some enthusiasm.
And our guess is it'll be worth the wait.