Northern Utah distilleries gain steam as interest in locally made liquor rises

Monday , July 17, 2017 - 4:45 AM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Jeff McAndrews checks the quality of Five Wives Vodka as it comes off the bottling line at Ogden's Own Distillery in Ogden on Thursday, July 13, 2017. Ogden's Own opened in 2009 and was the second distillery in the state. Today, more than a dozen distilleries operate in Utah.

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Need a good vodka, gin or rum?

Don’t just look to Russia, England or the Caribbean, home to some of the best-known brands of the spirits. Last month, Ogden’s Own Distillery launched its own gin. New World Distillery, based in Eden, recently launched its own agave spirit — akin to tequila — and several other Utah distillers and producers offer their own versions of rum, vodka, whiskey and more.

“It’s not so much where it’s made,” said Ethan Miller, president of the Distiller’s Guild of Utah and head distiller at Dented Brick Distillery in South Salt Lake, maker of rum, gin and vodka. “It’s who’s making it and how they’re making it.”

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Steve Conlin, managing partner of Ogden’s Own, says it’s also about creating a product that has a local identity and roots in the local culture. Inside the state, its Five Wives brand vodka — the name is a wink to the history of polygamy here — is the top-selling Utah-produced spirit, according to monthly Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sales figures Conlin tracks.

“I think the fact that we have some unique and kitschy marketing labels creates some intrigue,” said Conlin. Among other products, Ogden’s Own, launched in 2009 and headquartered in downtown Ogden, also produces Madam Pattirini Gin, named for the pseudonym of a drag diva of the 19th century who was the son of Brigham Young.

RELATED: Ogden distillery pays homage to Mormon drag diva with new gin

Whatever the appeal, the number of small-scale distillers and producers of spirits in Utah is on the upswing, reflecting increased interest across the nation in craft booze and hard liquor made close to home. Park City-based High West Distillery received its distilled spirits plant permit from federal regulators in 2006, making it “the first legal distillery” in Utah since 1870, according to a timeline of the company’s history. Ogden’s Own was second in 2009, and a dozen or so companies have since followed.

“There were a very few of us until four or five years ago,” Conlin said. “And suddenly everybody wants to take a stab at it.”

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Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute — an industry trade group based in Hayward, California — says there were prior booms across the country in locally produced craft beers and wine. Growing interest in small-scale spirits producers, he maintains, is the extension of that.

Nationally, he estimates there are around 1,300 craft distillers, up from around 700 in 2014. “I don’t see any slowdown. We’re on a nice curve,” Owens said.

‘ANTI-BIG CORPORATION’

For many, their foray into distilling is a passion. They speak of the local and regional rye, corn and other ingredients they tap to produce their drinks, of their efforts to create something new and different.

Ashley Cross co-owns New World Distillery with her husband, Chris. She thinks the company’s Blanco Agave Spirit — which, like tequila, is made from agave — is the only such spirit made in the state. The name tequila may only be used for agave spirits distilled in Mexico.

“Chris has been chasing tequila all his life,” she said.

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The increasing demands and changing tastes of some consumers also factors into the rise in locally made spirits.

“They’re consumers who care about where something comes from and how it’s made, especially something they’re putting in their body,” Miller said.

Miller, who was an optician before switching fields, noted the artesian well water tapped from beneath the company’s grounds, free of chlorine, fluoride and other such substances that are common in tap water. Likewise, Conlin noted the Ogden Canyon spring water Ogden’s Own uses.

“The key to making a good vodka is the water and the minerals contained in that water and whatever trace elements,” he said. Conlin, like company founder Tim Smith, worked in the mortgage industry before switching to Ogden’s Own.

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Cross, who opened New World Distillery last year, pointed to the many distinctive botanicals in the company’s gin beyond juniper, the staple of the drink. “I didn’t want to make a gin that reminded everyone of their dad’s gin. I wanted to make a different gin,” she said.

RELATED: New World Distillery opens doors in Eden, offers organic ingredients

The efforts seem to be paying off. Among other indicators, New York-based Constellation Brands last year acquired High West — the best-selling Utah brand of spirits inside the state — aiming to make inroads into the craft whiskey market. Miller, for his part, noted the high marks Dented Brick’s white rum received at a recent trade show in Miami, competing against products from the Caribbean and around the world.

“They were impressed and thrilled,” he said, alluding to the accolades the product generated from fellow producers. “It made me feel good about what we’re doing.”

But beyond the actual product, the sector’s growth also seems to stem from a growing desire among many to support local entrepreneurs and the local economy.

“I think it’s anti-big booze, anti-big corporation. The local movement and the craft movement is the counter to big booze and big corporations in general,” Cross said. “When you come in a craft facility, you meet the distiller.”

Still, Conlin noted more practical considerations, including the importance of sales and paying attention to the bottom line. He said six of Ogden’s Own products are among the top 15 selling Utah-produced spirits in the state, including three in the top five.

“We’re approaching it as a business and trying to grow it,” he said.

One difference between Ogden’s Own and grain-to-bottle producers like New World and Dented Brick is that the Ogden firm, instead of handling its own distilling, buys neutral spirits for its vodka and gin and Canadian whiskey for its line of Porter’s liqueurs. That helps maintain quality levels and keeps costs in check.

Then it infuses the spirits with flavoring, other ingredients and spring water to make its products.

It puts a strong focus on marketing and also strives to keep many of its products, notably Five Wives vodka, in a moderate price range to lure customers more easily.

Whatever the strategy, the presence of more spirits producers in Utah has helped create a market and room for more potential growth. Consumers, Conlin argues, are more and more accepting of locally produced products, in addition to the national and international brand names.

“As you add more distillers, you’re going to see more craft products,” Conlin said. “That’s the natural progression of things.”

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.