Courtesy of S.D. Strong Distilling
S.D. Strong Distilling 2
Barrels are instrumental in giving a spirit its avor. At S.D. Strong in Parkville, the distillers use white oak barrels from A&K Cooperage in Higbee to craft their vodka and gin.
By Wade Livingston
There was a time when Steve Strong planted grapes in his backyard with the intention of making wine.
It was a romantic notion, Steve says, one that didn’t factor in the patience required to let them grow. The growing process took three years, and just as his vines bore fruit, Steve sold his house.
“So, we had to move, and I never got any grapes off of that vineyard at all,” Steve says. “The guy that bought it, he bought it for his son, and his son ripped out all the vines. I was so bummed.”
But Steve reflected on the vineyard that never was and discovered he didn’t miss it. He’s not a patient person; he’s not a farmer. He likes what he’s doing now: using locally sourced ingredients to distill gin and vodka. There’s no farming and not much waiting.
Steve founded S.D. Strong Distilling in Parkville in 2012. He got interested in distilling when he was playing in a rockabilly band and running in the same circles as a guy who made moonshine in his garage. Steve did some research and found out he’d have to do a mountain of paperwork to get up and running. More importantly, he discovered that he’d actually have to invest all of his money on the front end, set up the distillery, and then apply for his federal distilled spirits plant (DSP) permit.
“So, you basically put all your money in, and you have no idea what you’re going to get,” Steve says. “After thinking about it for awhile, the thought of wondering if I should have done it for the rest of my life was a lot scarier than actually doing it and worrying about failing.”
Across the state, there are a handful of distillers like Steve. Their backgrounds are as varied as the gins, vodka, whiskeys, bourbons, and moonshines they produce. But they all share one thing in common: the appreciation for the Show-Me State’s business-friendly alcohol laws, abundant natural resources, and moonshine culture.
If you talk to this state’s distillers, they’ll tell you about Missouri’s three-tier system that takes their spirits from the still to the store to your glass. The first tier is occupied by the manufacturers who make liquor. The second tier belongs to the distributors, the people that get the liquor on the store shelves. The retailers make up the third tier; they sell you the booze. In Missouri, you can do all three at the same time.
“It’s wonderful,” says Ralph Haynes, vice president for sales and marketing at Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, “because it’s one of only about six states in the Union where you can occupy a position on each tier.”
That’s good for business, Ralph says, because it allows Pinckney Bend to sell directly to customers. Ralph and his partners launched the distillery in 2010, and they’ve been able to establish their brand and can now afford the services of an independent distributor. But for distillers like Van Hawxby—who is a relative newcomer—the ability to make, distribute, and retail spirits helps them cut down on overhead costs and get a foot- ing in the market.
Van founded DogMaster Distillery in Columbia in November 2012. In July 2014, he opened to the public and started working to plant his product in the city’s alcohol scene. He’s a bartender with a master’s of business administration. Part of his business model relies on teaching local bartenders how to make unique cocktails with his spirits and inviting the public into his distillery to imbibe on the premises.
“Here in Missouri, I can do full cocktail service,” Van says. “I can have liquor by the drink here. I can sell directly to my retailers here. I can sell directly to the public. It’s extremely hospitable to what we’re trying to do.”
Just as Missouri’s business-friendly alcohol laws provide a hospitable environment for distilleries, the state’s natural resources are fertile ground for distillation.
Mick Harris, president of McCormick Distilling in Weston, is apt to tell you how the area’s limestone-infused water encouraged the Holladay brothers to start their distillery— which would later become McCormick—in 1856. McCormick dwarfs distilleries like S.D. Strong, Pinckney Bend, and DogMaster in both size and age; the distillery is celebrating its 160th birthday this year. But regardless of the scope and age of an operation, whiskey production requires barrels. And some of the best barrels are made from Missouri white oak.
“First of all, you can source white oak here,” Mick says. “This is the leading state in the nation for white oak production for your barrels, so that’s part of Missouri. The soils are fertile; we grow great corn. With the wide variation of temperatures, the whiskey has a lot of opportunity to move in and out of the pores of that barrel, which gives it its color and many of its characteristics.”
Missouri is good for more than whiskey, though. Bryan Siddle, director of operations at Crown Valley Distillery in Ste. Genevieve, says the state’s agricultural resources and history make Missouri an ideal place to grow and source the ingredients needed to distill all sorts of alcohol. Crown Valley offers moonshine and just released its first ever gin. The gin is made with botanical and organic herbs from the distillery’s farm.
For now, Crown Valley’s Missouri Moonshine brand is the company’s main hard liquor imprint. The moonshine, Bryan says, is similar to the spirits made by bootleggers during Prohibition.
Copper Run Distillery in Walnut Shade also sells, among other spirits, moonshine that’s rooted in the history of Missouri.
“Speci cally to the Ozark region; people think of the Ozarks as a place where the old- timers have always made whiskey,” says Jim Blansit, owner of Copper Run.
Jim shies away from the term hillbilly, but there’s a certain connotation, he says, that ties his products back to the region’s early settlers, who quickly realized the perfect water and the perfect trees—limestone and white oak, respectively—were, well, perfect for whiskey production.
“I think there’s a lot of history in the state in general,” Steve says. “One of the things is we kind of have this bootleggers-sort-of vibe. I guess I’ve sort of—having lived in Missouri— always had that vibe.”
And while that vibe might be a source of inspiration for a distiller, there’s one important difference between the bootleggers of yesteryear and the distillers of today: the spirits that Steve and his brethren are conjuring up are legal.
Owner Jim Blansit got his start in the beer brewing industry before founding Copper Run in 2009. He’s a rm believer that you’ve got to make good beer before you can make good whiskey.
“A great way to describe my job is that I’m a chef,” Jim says. “I make food for yeast. And if I do my job right, I make yeast happy.”
Interestingly enough, the distillery first sold rum. It still does. Alongside its moonshine, Copper Run offers a couple of white rums, a gold rum, and a spiced rum. And then there’s the company’s small-batch whiskey. All of the products are “grain-to-bottle” regional spirits. The company’s motto is “small batch, big passion.”
Jim is a one-barrel-at-a-time kind of distiller. You won’t nd his products in Walmart, he says, but the time-intensive process he uses allows him to offer services like Copper Run’s Signature Barrel Program.
If you’ve ever wanted a hands-on learning experience where you can concoct your own whiskey recipe, this program is your chance. You can stay close—at the nearby Bear Creek Lodge, for example—and take an active role in developing your personalized barrel of whiskey, helping in every part of the process from creating the recipe to handcrafting the barrel.
Copper Run also has its own tasting room, where you can sample Jim’s spirits, and the distillery offers tours.
Bryan Siddle’s passion for brewing and distilling was inherited from his grandfathers. One brewed Stag beer. The other was a chef.
“It’s kind of funny because the roots are in me,” Bryan says. “It’s de nitely in the bloodline, as they say. We believe brewing is like baking bread or like making a great meal. It takes all these great ingredients to make one great beer.”
Crown Valley started as a winery in 1999, but the company had ideas for a brewery and distillery in 2006. A couple of years later, Crown Valley purchased an old elementary school, gutted it, and installed the brewery and distillery.
Missouri Moonshine might be the company’s best-known product, but Bryan and his crew make gin and vodka, too. And in December, Crown Valley just released its first ever two-year-old whiskey, called Coldwater. Crown Valley has a tasting room where you can sample beers and ciders in addition to spirits. If you’re interested in a tour, they’re offered at noon, 1 pm, and 2 pm every day that the distillery is open.
Looking for a place in Columbia where you can learn about distillation, get a hands-on cocktail lesson, and escape overcrowded college bars with their blaring music? DogMaster is just the place.
Van Hawxby keeps the music low, and the only time the tasting bar’s TV is on is when a game of note is on.
“We are very simple,” Van says. “What you see is what you get. We don’t have any fanciful names; it’s not Butter y Fart Vodka or something like that. It’s just vodka. We let the product inside the bottle speak for itself.”
If you’re looking for a handmade Old Fashioned or Manhattan, DogMaster is your spot. If you’re lucky—and pay attention to DogMaster’s social media accounts—you can serve on one of the distillery’s twelve-person tasting panels. That means you’ll get to sample a dozen or so cocktails and decide which ones make it on DogMaster’s ever-changing drink menu.
Van likes to do things by committee, and his business model is centered on customer engagement. Right now, he’s a one-man operation—doing all of the distilling, distributing, and retailing—but he’s excited to watch his distillery evolve.
As it celebrates its 160th birthday, McCormick is about to do something it hasn’t done in three decades: make bourbon on the premises.
“We have a tremendous Missouri bourbon heritage here, and we have not been using it for over thirty years,” Mick Harris says. “Well, there is an American whiskey renaissance going on right now.”
McCormick’s previous owners had shuttered the on-site bourbon distillation, Mick says, because they could make it cheaper elsewhere. But the quality suffered, according to Mick. Today, McCormick wants to revive its bourbon-making heritage.
It also wants to tap into people’s desires to see distilling firsthand and consume locally produced products made from locally grown ingredients. So in spring 2016, for the rst time in twenty years, McCormick will start offering tours of its distillery, Mick says.
The company makes a wide variety of spi its, from moonshine to tequila to vodka to Irish cream. Mick can remember twenty or so years ago, when McCormick might have been the only distillery in the state. But the distilling business has evolved, following trends in the state’s craft beer and wine industries.
Ralph Haynes sold his first bottle of Pinckney Bend gin out of the back of his minivan in 2011. The distillery has come a long way since then. He and two friends founded Pinckney Bend in 2010. Prior to that, they’d brewed beer together for fifteen years and experimented with Scotch. As they saw the craft distilling business start to take off, they decided to jump on board.
Pinckney Bend now sells gin, vodka, whiskey, and homemade tonic.
“Our gin is the only gin on the planet with a companion tonic syrup, Pinckney Bend Classic Tonic Syrup,” Ralph says. “It’s also part of the fea- tured cocktail of the Missouri Botanical Garden.”
Ralph and his crew were bothered by the state of contemporary tonic and how it had, in their words, devolved. So, they did some research and traced tonic back to its Brit- ish roots, when it was used as a prophylactic against malaria. The fellows at Pinckney Bend started making their own tonic, at rst for themselves and later for the distillery’s tasting room. But then, Ralph says, it got out of hand. As its popularity increased, they decided to manufacture and sell it.
If gin and tonic aren’t for you, Pinckney Bend also offers vodka, whiskey, and the chance to buy an entire barrel of fresh whiskey and track its aging process. You can sample the barrel as it ages, and you get to decide when it’s ready. Finally, you get to take part in the bottling and labeling of your whiskey—and you can take the empty barrel home with you. The total cost of the experience runs about $3,270.
Pinckney Bend has a tasting room and offers tours of the distillery, too.
68500 NW River Park Drive, Parkville, Missouri
Steve Strong’s distillery is located beneath Park University—in a cave.
“So the way that we ended up in this cave was there’s real special rules on distilleries in the county that we’re in,” Steve says. “They’re under international fire code.”
Long story short, Steve would have had to install an overhead sprinkler system if he wanted to get his distillery up and running. Luckily, the cave already had sprinklers.
Steve was hesitant at first: He worried that no one would nd the distillery if it was buried in a cave. But then he had another thought: having a distillery in a cave was a great way to tap into that bootlegger vibe. He was right, and the cave has become a big part of S.D. Strong’s brand.
The cave has attracted curious visitors to the distillery. Steve says he hadn’t planned on initially offering tours, but the public interest has softened his stance. If you make an appointment, he’ll show you around. And, if you’re interested in a birthday party or other special event, you can contact S.D. Strong to see if you can host it in the cave.
Steve started out distilling vodka, but he now makes rye whiskey and gin, which won the highest honor at the Washington Cup spirits competition. Steve hopes to have a bourbon out soon, too.