A seed is planted and the earth itches to support. There is no negotiation with the sun or rain about the seed’s capability. An intention is set, planted with purpose, and the surrounding elements join the party to support the seed’s growth.

Craft distillers work fervently to grow this seed of passion from sprout to mighty oak. It is not a mindless process that hums to the sound of a conveyer belt. There has to be a bug of distilling desire and it has to bite. Spend an hour talking distilling with someone who has been bit in the behind by the distilling bug. They will tell you, “The sun will come out, lives will change and history will be rewritten.” The world of craft distilling is fueled by this passion and intention.

When a distiller caps a bottle of well-nurtured spirit, its adult journey begins. From distillery to distributor, the final destination is to the hands of a cocktail crafter, a bartender. From the bartender’s hands must flow the same passion as was invested into the creation of the spirit. The story must remain valid in its retelling. With the enormous amount of personal energy, his- or her-story and time spent, the distiller must wonder when the bottles go to market: Will their full potential be recognized? Can anyone see the true beauty inside? Will my spirit play well with others? Once in the hands of bartenders (gasp), will they do right by my baby? The bottom line: Does the passion, intention and purpose of the distiller’s vision find its way into the farthest possible destination, the cocktail? Liz Henry, Ryan Christiansen, Gable Erenzo, Morgan McLachlan and Jason Parker each tell a unique story of the spirits-to-bar journey and connection with those that hold their vision with integrity and joyful expression.

Spirited Sisters

J. Henry & Sons Farm have a passion for farming, specifically, a very special heirloom red corn. Liz Henry and her husband’s love of farm-driven distilling has extended into the next generation, and with two sons forging forth, bringing new perspectives, their story continues. Personal relationships drive Liz Henry. It’s not about vague product placement or deals. The places where her spirits find homes are with friends. She chuckles, “That’s the thing about this industry that’s incredible, that’s crazy, that’s great… is we are friends… and everybody is learning a business.” She feels this community of spirits dwellers has been nothing but supportive and collaborative, rather than competitive. Henry talks of collaboration and sisterhood. During Madison Cocktail Week two years ago, Liz served on a panel titled Gender Equity in the Spirits Industry. “Everybody else was doing herbal mixology… and we are coming out with a panel of women doing gender equity in the spirits industry… I realize it’s an issue … but I didn’t think it would be that well subscribed… [there are] women who work in the bar industry who do feel that they don’t have a voice and there are men who also understand that, and then there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s a problem.” From that panel on that day, Liz and ladies formed a grassroots group called Spirited Women. Spirited Women are women and men from the bar industry in Madison, Wisconsin, working together as the creatives, integrating product, process and prowess to pounce on possibilities. Coming from the marketing spectrum of the industry, Henry says it has been phenomenal watching individuals immersing themselves in each other’s worlds and skill sets, providing the community with exposure to the true essence of collaboration. At a dinner during Milwaukee Cocktail Week, Henry relays that guests were delighted. “Not only did each cocktail pair beautifully with each course… the presentation and the show was exciting, but… they all felt like the cocktails built upon each other… that you had that first course… and after you did that, the second course… and that first cocktail was kind of leading your palate along to introduce the second course.”

Henry is happy with an ice cube and a smile served with her product, but when she sees the excitement and energy invested into creating extensive pairings and multi-mixologist collaborated cocktails, she is floored. Her product is among friends and treated with respect.

Mom’s Red Car

It was a company party at Barr Hill, around Christmas, and a local farmer brought by fresh kefir. An employee was challenged to create a cocktail. The company had just heard the inspiring tale of Caledonia Spirits founder Todd Hardie’s early beginnings, delivering cases of spirits that had been crammed from door to door and window to window in a beat-up old red Mercury station wagon. The kind of cramming that leads to dragging on the road when you drive across state, hand-delivering orders. It was the trusty steed that started the seed of the company to grow, affectionately known as Mom’s Red Car. One employee grasped the challenge by taking Barr Hill Gin, elberberry cordial and the local kefir to create what turned out to be a drink memorable enough to still hold space in Ryan Christiansen’s heart. The cocktail represents the culmination of unexpected blessings and community, blended with the best-loved tool at the distillery.

On Barr Hill, agriculture is the focus. Conveying a sense of place through the products at Caledonia Spirits is the interwoven story. Ryan Christiansen talks about the local farmers and Hardie; their attention and commitment to the land and community. “Our mission is really built around supporting agriculture and making agriculture work [distilling is nothing but an opportunity to make sure farmers are actually profitable and successful…], we try to execute that in every expression that we put out to market.” When visiting bartenders have the opportunity to check out the distillery, they hike above the town of Hardwick onto Barr Hill, peruse Hardie’s farm, and “really see the level of authenticity, the mindful approach that we are putting into the creation of every bottle, then they get it, and that shifts the enthusiasm behind every cocktail.” Vermont bartender Matt Farkas has apparently been hiking that hill for some time now. Connected to the land and vision of Barr Hill, in the spirit of Mom’s Red Car, Farkas is a longtime subscriber to Caledonia Spirits and to his own craft. Christiansen remarks that the passion and knowledge that Farkas exudes when not only speaking about Barr Hill products, but in implementing them into mindful mugs of cocktail splendor, is just that: mindful and splendid. Farkas is, in Christiansen’s mind, the bartender to name in complete faith and connection with Barr Hill and Caledonia Spirits.

Coming Home To Roost

Gable Erenzo engages in a full-fledged community operation. Being on the road for years, working with Hudson Whiskey, as a distiller and a brand ambassador, he was in constant connection with bartenders making magic with whiskey. Involved in the marketing and showmanship side of the field, Erenzo reached a point where it was time to plant himself. When the farm distillery laws were changing in New York, the opportune moment seized him: “A farm distillery… in the lines of a brewpub… but more farm-oriented. You are producing what you are selling, so you are focusing on what is around in the general vicinity.” Gardiner is a quiet town that was in for a big surprise when Erenzo bought an empty building on Main Street. While waiting for his farm distilling license to be approved, Erenzo renovated this downtown house, prepping it to be a hub for food, spirits, beer, wine and retail… anything grown and produced locally. With local distillates, produce, beer and wine. All Erenzo needed was to court a local individual to pour forth the essence: And court he did. “You can teach people how to make cocktails, but you can’t teach people how to be awesome,” quoth Erenzo, when he speaks of the only bartender he works with at Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Zoli Rozen turned down the first offer from his longtime college friend, but within a few days, he was behind the bar asking where the soda gun was. After a few realignments, Rozen hit the ground running. In fact, sending him home has proved challenging. Erenzo talks of finding Rozen prepping shrubs and syrups until sunrise, enraptured in his role as barman extraordinaire. “[Rozen] is not only taking the stuff that I’m distilling and my passion for it … but he’s taking it to the next level by doing all these infusions and bitters, liqueurs that we are serving over here at the bar.” What’s next for Gardiner Liquid Mercantile? More stills, more brandy and products based on Rozen’s creations. This local hub of a farm community is a true representation of human alchemy. It works and transforms!

California Dreamin’

Los Angeles is not known for agriculture. Or shall I say, we tend to forget the sprawling citrus orchards that once carpeted the land of film, fantasy and freeways. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Morgan McLachlan and her crew at The Spirit Guild would create the unorthodox, experimental line of vodka and gin created from clementines. “There’s intentionality there,” pipes McLachlan, “we wouldn’t do this if it didn’t taste really, really good, … and also inspire people’s imaginations and ways of thinking of alcohol.” Miller Duvall, McLachlan’s partner, comes from six generations of farming in California. The history and purpose of creating a California clementine distillation is present with these two. Instead of utilizing traditional grains for vodka and gin, it was important for McLachlan and Duvall to remain loyal to the local terroir of southern California. They did this in the distillations as well as by working with local bar consultants Alex Day and Devon Tarby, a partnership of simpaticos known as Proprietors LLC, as McLachlan feels neither Day nor Tarby puts forth idiosyncratic cocktails for no reason. There is an alignment of purpose and intention behind their work that represents the experimental and authentic style of Spirit Guild’s product expression. “They have completely deconstructed and reconstructed the art of craft cocktail making in a very intentional way.” McLachlan goes on, urging, “You would think that given the incredible amount of thought and presentation that goes into what they do that there would be pretense there… but… there is incredible customer service. It’s really about the art of hospitality, and I think they have mastered that.” As she speaks about the staff at Proprietors LLC, McLachlan ruminates on her own future. She goes on to describe that beyond being in love with the art of distilling and planning to pursue it for the rest of her days, she is most passionate about creating an experience for everyday life, a way to bring a slice of joy to the world and “helping to lubricate cultural experiences.”

“Why” Makes A Story Whole

”You told me exactly what you are doing and why!” exclaim many a traveler who meander through Copperworks Distilling after taking the distillery tour. A story has to be true and it has to be of interest, according to Jason Parker. These are the vital components when sharing the vision and mission of the brand. Parker talks about being transparent and bringing “a philosophy of change” to distillation. “We have to be the innovators,” he insists. Speaking on the why of a process or belief system creates transparency for the public. The philosophy of change comes from the choice to create a new path of why and how in the industry and formulate the beginnings of a brand-new story. If an individual will vibrate with the product, it will happen with this full disclosure. Parker relates, “We stop [into bars] with our liquor and we begin to tell our story… we can usually tell walking into the bar if [it] has the finances, and the focus… the customer base, to be able to listen to our story.” This is the beginning of valued partnerships for Parker. “[The bartenders] either have the bug or they don’t… once we find those people, we really connect.” Parker celebrates the fact that he has built a strong web of such relationships. He brings local bartenders to the distillery and spends a couple of days distilling with them. Working with the vision of the bar or restaurant, Parker works with them on drinks, sometimes blending two or three barrels to create the exact flavor to complement menus. He has just finished his fifth custom barrel which has been painstakingly and lovingly blended with the bar staff and Copperworks team. A bartender can’t ask for a closer relationship with a distiller than that! With so much consideration and effort in bringing a unique product to the bar top, the passion and transparency of integrity has reached the outer layer. The branches have reached the imbiber.

Bottles brimming with passion. Stories filled with authenticity. From the moment that seed of intention was dropped into the soil, the distillers began the journey, integrating pathfinders, experimenters, cheerleaders and team members to create community. From bars to special events to tastings worldwide, this community thrives out loud, expressing layers of story and collaboration with new perspectives offering integrity and quality. The seed of craft distilling has taken root and continues to stretch arms gratefully and gracefully towards the abundant sky. To the dram and beyond!

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Kat Valentina
Kat Valentina is a mixologist, writer and TV host spanning thecoast, from L.A. to the San Francisco Bay. Focusing on local, seasonal and farm-grown ingredients, she found a home in the garden with her artisanal brand of bitters and tinctures, Elemental Spirits. She is now immersed in the world of medicinal mixology,with an emphasis on craft spirits and healing herbs. Currently, she is working on a TV show exploring the diverse nature of planetary herbology and its influence in the cocktail world.