Local Distilleries Thrive in Beehive State

Salt Lake City—While the Beehive State might not be known for its liquor, several distilleries are making their mark and giving drinkers something to raise their glasses about. At Wednesday evening’s 2nd Annual Foodtrepreneur Festival, several distilleries set up booths to show the audience their wares, as well as suggestions on how to drink them.

It was the success of much-lauded local whiskey brand High West that drove Matt Aller, Chris Barlow and Erik Ostling to open Beehive Distilling. Aller, who is a native Utahn, said the trio started talking about the whiskey company and decided there should be a gin with a flavor profile based on the state.

“It was one of those things, we started talking about it and actually pulled it off,” says Aller. “We all love the desert—we’ve been mountain biking, hiking, different things down there. We think it does taste like the Utah desert, with the rose petals and the sage leaves.”

Beehive’s Jack Rabbit Gin is made with juniper berries, lemon peel, sage leaves, coriander seeds, orris root, grains of paradise and rose petals. It’s produced in the distillery’s Salt Lake City headquarters, and is finished with water from the Wasatch Mountains, further filtered for purity. Aller said the response to the gin has been unbelievable.

“Once we got the federal paperwork done, the state and the control state system was really nice. From the first month after we delivered, within 40 days we were in every store in the system. We got lots of great PR, and that really made sales take off quick,” he said. “People love it. We’re kind of branching out into Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California.”

Part of the label’s success, says Aller, is that gin is a favorite of bartenders, which has led to many delicious concoctions pulling customers into the brand.

“You can make it savory, you can make it sweet, you can do lots of things,” he said. “One thing that’s really blown us away is the amazing creation that the bartenders have come up with.”

While Beehive Distilling is young—three years old, one to get through the paperwork and two with the products on shelves—Ogden’s Own Distillery has been around in one form or another since the 1990s, when founder Timothy Smith was in his basement, crafting absinthe.

“I realized really quickly, though, that I wouldn’t be able to make a living in Utah selling absinthe,” said Smith. “So I backed the wormwood off the absinthe and focused more on digestive and restorative type herbs.”

What resulted was herbal spirit Underground, made with 33 herbs, spices and flavors—and much less sugar than other liqueurs. Smith said the initial reaction to the spirit was not exactly overwhelming.

“I had Underground formulated in about 2006, and it took me until about 2009 to launch the product,” Smith said. “It was at first received with a little bit of skepticism, but after we took the double-gold at the [2010] World Spirits Competition in San Francisco and then many multiple gold medals and best of categories after, we were taken a little bit more seriously after that.”

From there, Smith created Five Wives Vodka, a 100 percent corn vodka he blends with spring water he collects from Ogden Canyon, five gallons at a time. The water, he says, has a high mineral content that gives Five Wives its unique flavor. There are a few different flavors of Five Wives vodkas—Heavenly, a vanilla custard-flavored vodka, and Sinful, a cinnamon-flavored vodka in the vein of Fireball. The brand also carries Porter’s Fire, which is made with a Canadian whiskey but adds flavors of both cinnamon and vanilla custard, making it more of a “cinnamon bun” flavor, said Smith.

“[Porter’s Fire] is doing really well. For a brand that’s just a year old and we haven’t really spent a lot of money on, it’s coming out of the gate firing,” Smith said. “We’ve been kind of slow about putting products out, because I’m very concerned about quality and if the market is right, and sometimes I think flooding the market with multiple brands at once is not the smartest thing. But I do have multiple brands in the wings that I’m really hoping to get out this year. I’m really excited about this year.”

Smith credited the fact that the state is a control state for some of his brand’s success.

“In an open market, it becomes very competitive and sometimes there’s a lot of work to do with greasing palms and getting shelf space where you want it and getting representation,” he said. “In Utah, since it’s controlled by the state, everything is arranged by category and price, so it’s really easy to be competitive in the state. I really welcome this state.”

Salt City Vodka’s Jesse Farrer and Aaron Ilott met over glasses of vodka—a portent of their joint venture to come. Describing themselves as a pair of best friends who always wanted to go into business together, Farrer and Ilott combined that desire with their shared love of Utah and vodka.

“This is our home state—Aaron and I were born and raised here. For us it was a no brainer that we’d stay here in our home state that we love,” Farrer said. “We’d kind of talked about starting out as a brewery, but there were a lot of breweries already here but there was almost no liquor, so that was one of the pieces—let’s do something that nobody else is doing and make a better vodka than we’re drinking, and it can be our passion and our career.”

So, nearly seven years ago, Salt City Vodka was born—although it would take five years of paperwork, licensing and red tape to get their product on the shelves.

“We have two birthdays: when the company started, and when the product actually launched,” Farrer said.

Farrer and Ilott joke the first ingredient of their product is love, but the grain that goes into making the vodka is 100 percent sweet corn, and they say they’ve perfected the recipe for a soft finish, all while keeping it in the price range they used to spend on vodka before they made it—a mid-shelf price for a top-shelf product, they say.

“We wanted to make a vodka you could drink straight, that you could put on ice, and just drink it. That’s pretty rare in a vodka, especially in our price range,” he said.

While getting their name out has been slow, Salt City Vodka’s popularity has been increasing. The company, which has its product available at most state liquor stores, recently released a half-gallon bottle of vodka as a response to quick sales of their smaller bottle. Farrer said they are also hoping to release a new product by the end of the year, but that release depends on licensing.

Utah native James Fowler was living comfortably in Dallas when he decided to follow his passion and open his own distillery. While the drinking community was larger in Texas, he said, he was drawn back to his home state by the wealth of quality grains and other ingredients produced in Utah.

“All of our products we’ve tried to source as local as possible,” he said. “We have corn out of Delta, Utah, we have amazing honey, we’ve got the raspberries, peaches, apples—just some crazy-good stuff out here.”

“We have some of the best water in the country, and the raw materials were just so much better here than anywhere else,” he added.

After jumping through the customary bureaucratic hoops, Sugarhouse Distillery was born. All of the liquors at Sugarhouse Distillery are made from scratch, using carefully curated local ingredients. Fowler is passionate about what he does, and hires employees who have that same devotion to the craft.

“I started with home-brewing; so much of making a good whiskey is that fermentation, and it’s similar to making beer. It’s something I’ve always loved to do,” he said. “Everybody at our company, all of us are passionate. If somebody wasn’t in with that passionate vision that we have, I don’t think they’d be working for us, because that’s really important to me.”

Fowler’s passion extends beyond the distillery’s door—this past legislative season, he spoke at the legislature in regards to the alcohol law modifications for tastings at distilleries, breweries and other facilities that manufacture alcohol. Fowler said he loves sharing his passion, and hopes to help make Utah a little more liquor-friendly.

“As we were going through the cafeteria, people were standing up and clapping, like, ‘Go get ‘em! Go fight ‘em!” he said. “[We’re] trying to change laws and make things better.”