[L-R ]Dave Wood, Bob Ryan, Bob’s son Doug at Ryan & Wood Distillery, in Gloucester, MA. Photo ©Kendra Dott

In the seaside Massachusetts town of Gloucester, Bob Ryan, his wife, Kathy, and son Doug, along with Bob’s nephew, Dave Wood, opened Ryan & Wood Distilleries (ryanandwood.com) in 2006, bringing spirits production to his hometown in the form of rum, gin, vodka and whiskies.

As a family business, they all often overlap in their roles and duties, with Kathy focused on the business/office side as well some rum blending, while Doug handles the legal side and their accounts. But they all lead tours, joke about Doug being “corporate floor scrubber” and do the usual tireless work it takes to run a distillery.

Ever experimenting with potential new product, they are dedicated to a range of spirits to meet an array of drinkers’ tastes, initially only selling Ryan & Wood product in their area, eventually moving beyond to Boston and all around the state of Massachusetts.

In his own words, Bob Ryan shares with us about how his family got into distilling, how living in a historic, seaside town influences their business and even about the surprise discovery of bootlegging connections in their family’s past.

Q  Tell us how your distillery began.

In 2006 my wife Kathy and I, along with our son, Doug Ryan, and nephew, Dave Wood, founded Ryan & Wood Distilleries. We began producing spirits on Cape Ann, MA, in the historic fishing port of Gloucester, MA, just north of Boston. We had read a few articles on craft distilling and, of course, with the explosion of craft beer, thought spirits could be next. The real industry pioneers were up and running, but we weren’t far behind.

Q  What led you to distilling and spirits?

Our family was in on-shore seafood processing for generations in Gloucester. Fish dominated the local business scene on Cape Ann since the Europeans first arrived. As commercial fishing constricted over the past years, we wanted to go grab an industry, bring it into town and show people that it could be done.

We wanted to prove that creativity and hard work are still what makes a business successful. You can see on our labels that we take every chance to pay homage to the working waterfront and maritime industries of our home port. Our bottles feature knockabout fishing schooners, the iconic “Man at the Wheel” fisherman’s memorial, Gloucester Harbor’s Dog Bar breakwater and historical nautical maps of Cape Ann.

Also, the liquor business is apparently in our blood. During the extensive background checks needed for our federal distilling license, we learned that Bob’s grandfather (a Gloucester police patrolman by day) had a run-in with federal authorities while moonlighting as security for Canadian rumrunners during Prohibition some 90 years ago. They all got “pinched” up in a marsh in Newburyport, MA, while unloading illicit liquor. It held up our licensing for a bit but makes a great story, after the fact!

Q  What spirits do you consider your strengths or flagship spirits and why did you decide to distill these particular spirits?

Our first product, and still our top volume seller, is our Beauport Vodka. It’s a true craft vodka with some actual character to it. After successfully launching Beauport, we decided to make a variety of spirits (two styles of vodka, two styles of gin, one aged rum and three whiskeys) because we wanted to give everyone out there an option to drink local products regardless of their spirit of choice. That being said, the market has informed us that we make some pretty good whiskey. Our three whiskeys have perhaps created the biggest buzz around our brand. In 2011, we launched our Ryan & Wood Straight Rye Whiskey, a single-barrel offering that has proven tough to keep in supply as the market for American whiskeys, and rye in particular, has exploded. We are currently bottling four-year-old barrels of rye.

We also have our very limited run Wheat Whiskey, a seven-year single-barrel spirit distilled entirely from Massachusetts-grown wheat. It has a touch of sweetness and a mellow character that is quite different from the assertive, almost aggressive, character of our rye. Finally, we have our American Single Malt, distilled entirely from malt barley. That stuff seems to vanish from our gift shop as soon as we bottle it, and as a result is only around for a few months out of the year. We have already identified our next barrel, which should be bottled just in time for the holidays.

Q  How have you grown your brand?

As a family-owned, independent distillery, we’ve never had a large budget for marketing or PR. We’ve had to make up for that by employing the right mix of creativity, hard work and blissful naiveté.

Of course, every weekend we are tasting our spirits in package stores, introducing our goods to new clients and hand-selling one bottle at a time. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have logged thousands of miles to pour at every “taste of…” event across the state and spent hundreds of hours building our award-winning Fourth of July Parade floats. It all helps, but there’s no replacing a customer who enjoys your products and likes to talk about them. Word of mouth is still king!

Q  What advice would you give fellow distillers looking to get their spirits into bars?

Well, the two big clichés hold true. First is that the spirits business is a relationships business. You have to put the time in at accounts to learn the character of the place and find what bars in an area are a good fit for your spirits.

Once you make a placement, invest your time in getting to know the owners, managers, bar staff and servers as best you can without being a total pest. They will only become excited about your product if you are respectful of both their craft and their time. This is doubly important for a new brand that doesn’t have a million customers calling for it by name, as the staff is your principle means of introducing your product to customers.

The second cliché that holds true is despite all the marketing in the world: It all boils down to the quality of the spirit in the bottle. At Ryan & Wood, we’ve always believed that if we keep the quality up, the rest will figure itself out with enough effort and patience. When you sit with a bar manager to taste through your spirits, you have to be able to look them in the eye and be confident in what you present.

Q  What spirits are exciting you the most right now?

For years we have offered our Knockabout Gin, a new-world style gin with notes of citrus, cinnamon and eight other botanicals. It has quite a dedicated following. Just recently we launched the next evolutionary step for Knockabout, our Knockabout Cask Reserve. We take our freshly emptied Straight Rye Whiskey barrels and refill them with our Knockabout Gin. After a year and a half of aging time, the gin takes this wonderful golden color and notes of vanilla and caramel, as well as a softening of the juniper character.

It’s been our top seller in the gift shop for the summer of 2016. Many whiskey drinkers who never liked gin enjoy it for the barrel notes. Sub it for vodka in a Moscow Mule for the most refreshing summer cocktail I’ve ever tasted.

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Virginia Miller
Virginia Miller has been San Francisco editor for Zagat, VP of Content/National Editor at Table8, SF Guardian food/drink critic, Time Out and writes about spirits, cocktails and bars around the world at Liquor.com. Miller also freelances for Food Republic, Thrillist, Whisky Magazine UK, Paste Magazine, Where Magazine, London Times and Eater, to name a few. Virginia has judged countless food and cocktail competitions and on spirits panels. She shares her favorites in food and drink on her own site, The Perfect Spot.