You Probably Didn’t Contemplate Becoming a Moonshiner in Retirement. Maybe You Should …

Dec 05, 2009

Artisan Moonshining may be a great, perfectly legal encore career for retirees. You can get started for about $75k, the business requires little staff, and participants typically are consumed with a passion for their work.

“I got a call last week from a 61-year-old retired sea captain from Mississippi and I asked him what he was going to do for the rest of his life,” says Bill Owens, executive director of American Distilling Institute.

“‘Make the best damn rum in the world,’ he tells me. That’s the kind of guy you find in this business.”

There are an increasing number of folks with that kind of passion. Six years ago, there were 65 artisan distillers in the US. Today there are 165 and growing. Owens’ new book, Modern Moonshining Techniques ($45, www.amazon.com) outlines the $75k distillery project and anticipates a 10-month start up period before you start selling product in many states. It assumes that you have a 2,000/sf space in which to work (if not, add the cost of rental space) and be prepared for hiccups particularly to obtain state and federal licensing which has taken up to two years in difficult states.

These new distilleries produce an array of spirits, vodka, gin, rye, single-malt whiskey, liqueurs and artisan drinks like grappa, eau de vie and absinthe. Locally produced spirits have proven to be very attractive to the marketplace because folks like buying local and sustainable, Owens says. Vermont Spirits makes a strong-selling vodka made from maple syrup collected on the owner’s farm (see VermottSpirits.com). The family moved to Vermont to do organic farming but turned to distilling in 1998 to support themselves.

“The idea was simple – vodka from maple sap. They set out to tap the maple trees for sugar, develop the springs for pure water, cut firewood for the stills. From their own hemlocks and pine, they built a post and beam barn on the old foundation to house the stills. The stills themselves were fashioned from maple arches with high towers to catch and condense the steam,” the company’s web site says.

They were ready with their first delivery 18 months later but the distillery burned down and they had to rebuilt. They have been in the stores since 2001.

A cherry brandy made from an oversupply of cherries in northern Michigan is very popular in that state. Distillers are most often found in the fruit producing states of Michigan, Oregon, Maine and California where ingredients are fresh and plentiful, Owens said.

The sea captain from Mississippi should have a ready market for the rum he plans to make because his region grows the sugar cane from which rum is made, Owen said. Celebration Distillation Corp. in New Orleans makes a very popular rum sold throughout the southeast (seeNewOrleansrum.com), said Owens.

“Anybody doing rum in that part of the world can do well,” says Owens.
Much like the food industry, the spirits industry is dominated by giant corporations – nine companies control 99% of the market – but little 3-employee companies are taking market share from them in local communities, said Owens.

“That’s the thing about this business. People love the idea of little guys making high quality products and they not only love talking about it, they buy it too, Owens said.

Owens himself runs two stills and is working on a process to distill liquor from donuts that are about to be thrown out.

“There’s lots of perfectly good sugar going to waste in those donuts,” Owens said.

Although outsized profits are difficult to achieve, people are making a very good living at the business – even though the industry is one in which the middle-men – distributors and retailers – take about 70% of the revenue, Owen says. The federal government regulates what distillers can call their products and whiskey must be aged two years before it can be called Bourbon, a long wait for a newcomer. The law allows distillers that age whiskey for a year or more to call their products Baby Bourbon, and that is selling very well for the artisans. One artisan distiller, Tuthilltown Spirits, established in 2001, produces Baby bourbon which is selling so well they have been begun selling the product in Europe, Owens said.

Tuthilltown (tuthilltown.com) calls itself the first legal distillery in New York since Prohibition and calls its Baby Bourbon its best selling product. The New York Post calls the company a “glorious contraption and the New York Times features its rye whiskey as the heart of “The Real Manhattan”, the cocktail that became the in-drink in New York 70 years ago.

“This is not rocket science, contrary to the myth the big alcohol producers have propagated,” Tuthilltown co-owner Ralph Erenzo told the New York Post. “What’s hard is not the process, it’s everything you have to do to bring the product to market.”

Before 1920, when the Volstead Act made sobriety mandatory, there were more than 1,200 farm distilleries in New York. After repeal, wineries and breweries returned, with recent decades seeing an ongoing boom in both fields, the Post said. But it took nearly 70 years for distilleries to return.
The best distillers tend to people who have cut their teeth on beer brewing and wine making, Owen said. “With that experience you have a significant leg up,” Owens said. But newcomers with no experience fill a number of the 15 slots at the American Distillers Institute’s annual Hands-on Whiskey Distilling Workshop (to be held this year, Dec. 7-11, 2009 in Petuluma, CA) and fill the halls of ADI’s annual conference (to be held in Louisville, April 6-9, 2010). Newcomers are entering the business.

The training workshop in California features sessions on brewing, distilling and maturation, and mashing and fermentation. There is also a session providing hands-on bottling experience and another with an industry lawyer on how to obtain a DSP (a Distilled Spirits Plant permit.) There is also a considerable amount of training on how to taste the various types of spirits.