Last week we discussed one of the newer breweries pumping out fine spirits, so this week we're shifting focus to one of the newer distilleries that opened operations at the start of the year. Sugar House Distillery set up shop along West Temple in South Salt Lake in late 2013, and began concocting their own delicious brand of vodka at the start of the year with an invitation to tour the facility to anyone who dropped by. As of last week the company started boxing up their product to be distributed through the DABC, officially making themselves available state-wide as they expand their business. Today we chat with one of the founders, James Fowler, about starting up the company and reaching success in such a short amount of time. (All pictures courtesy of Sugar House Distillery.
Gavin: Hey James, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Bountiful, this is home to me. I have moved away for school and work, but have always come back home. I love so many things this state has to offer. I really like the outdoors. I like to run, and I love a good trail run in the mountains. If I put in a good run then I can have a good drink (or two) at the end of the night. I love a good challenge. I think that is why I wanted to open a distillery in Utah.
Gavin: What first got you interested in brewing and distilling as both a hobby and profession?
I started home brewing beer back in about 1992. I think that is when the search of a real good beer started for me. I was on a business trip and had a really good beer that was a local beer. So I knew making stuff of my own was about the only way to try new things. I liked to go to Red Rock and Squatters back then and try new beers. I would go to the home brew store and try to make something close to them. My favorite was a Stout Beer that had a real nice coffee flavor.
Gavin: What was it like for you early on, learning the ropes in how to craft a proper drink?
Very hard. I would visit The Beer Nut in Salt Lake City often. I am sure they got more than one phone call from me. Sometimes leaving the store I did not feel they answered my questions. But then a couple of months later I could see there was no correct answer. They let me find out pro and cons of brewing different ways. And I could see how it would affect the flavor of my beers. Because in the end there are no correct answers. I have found this also to be true with distilling. Everything you do will affect the flavor. So you really have to play around with different techniques to see what you like. Back then it was hard to find a good book to teach you anything. I am sure I read The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing
20 times. No internet back then, so it was only books that I could get my hands on.
Gavin: How did you officially start working in beer brewing as a career?
I have never worked in the Beer Industry. I did win a Home Brew Competition over in Colorado in the '90s. I had an investor back then try to talk me into opening a brew pub. At that time I did not think I could make it work. I did not have the balls to go all in to something like that back then. I hired Dan, our Lead Distiller, in January of this year. He has worked many years in the beer industry in the U.S. and over in Japan. With all the beer and distilling experience he has. The two jobs complement each other very nicely.
Gavin: You've got a couple decades under your belt prior to the new distillery. What would you say were some of your finer points in those years?
My wife has really been giving me a hard time. I was at the doctor with knee problems a few months ago. He said "you are now in your middle years." She will not let me live that down. No, I think I have picked up some really good skills from past jobs to make this work. I have worked doing purchasing/sourcing for many years. The last decade I have worked in Outside Sales as a Regional Manager selling Chemicals and PTO items. So I feel I have learned a lot of things that will help me run my own company.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start your own distillery?
For the last 12 years or so I have traveled the U.S. for my job. I started going to breweries each night to eat dinner. I just really started to want something in each city that was local and not a chain restaurant. And a beer that was not Budweiser. I wanted to experience what was local. Once that guy tried to talk me into being partners in a Brewery in Utah that was all I could think about. As I got older I started drinking mixed drinks and started to enjoy whiskey. About six years ago I visited my first distillery. I could see how much it was like a brewery. But at the same time I was really taken back by the beauty of the still and equipment. I could see I knew how to do most of the process of making liquor. But the still was intriguing to me. I started searching out distilleries and right away I knew that is what I wanted to do. I also have wanted to have my own business and I knew a distillery was a perfect fit.
Gavin: When did you meet Dan Feldman and how did the two of you become friends?
The big joke is Match.com – No, the distilling industry has some forms on the internet for professional distilling. Going through the first steps with the bank they wanted me to hire someone with experience. This was hard, as distilling was really just taking off on a craft level. I had moved away from financing from a bank, and I had planned on doing all the distilling myself. Dan had seen a post I had placed on the distilling website when I was working with the bank. Dan said he wanted to move to Utah. I flew out to South Carolina to meet him and felt like he would be a good fit. I was excited to have someone to bounce idea's off from.
Gavin: During the planning stages, what made you choose vodka as your main spirit of production?
Income! I hate to say it, but with vodka you can get money coming back into the company the quickest. Vodka sells more than any other spirit. We have been paying out for the last two to two and half years getting this company started. The permitting process is crazy. And you have to have a building and a still to get the process started. So to wait three to four years to have money coming back in would not work for us. We had to go with something we could sell from day one. We will always make a vodka. But I am more excited for more of the other products to come in the future. A good whiskey needs to be aged two to four years. We are aging our whiskey in small barrels to speed up that process. In the near future we will be barreling whiskey in full size barrels (53 gallons). Even our rum I want aged for at least 30 to 60 days. Vodka comes right off the still and it is ready to sell. We are making a malted wheat/corn vodka. We are distilling it our 100 gallon still. With our current vodka we have flavored it as a very neutral or smooth tasting vodka. Good for sipping or mixing. We really where worried the State of Utah would not pick us up with another Vodka on the market. The DABC told us something had to be attractive for them to sell our product. So we are producing a high end vodka that should sell for much more, but we are selling it for 19.99 a 750ML bottle. We are giving the State of Utah DABC high quality vodka at a very low price range.
Gavin: What made you decide to keep it in Salt Lake City rather than an outskirt town like other distilleries? And how did you come across the location on West Temple?
I talked to many cities, High West has history with Salt Lake City, so I was expecting Salt Lake to be easy to work with. I would meet with them, and they would say good things. But after the meetings I would get discoursing news from them. I could tell they wanted nothing to do with another distillery. Some cities would just shut down the idea right away. But then there was South Salt Lake. Our first meeting did not go all that well. But once they dug into it a little more, and we did a little more homework they were great to work with. I can not say enough good things about South Salt Lake. I would expect we will be in South Salt Lake for many years to come. I love were we are located. Shades of Pale brewing has just opened around the corner from us to the north. And Kiler Grove Winery is just around the other corner to the south. It's a central located neighborhood in Salt Lake, and we are walking distance from two Trax lines. But I love how a handcraft spirit, wine and beer company are all next to each other. It makes it worth it for someone to come down and check all three of us out. You can buy a bottle at Sugar House Distillery, get samples of wine at Kiler Grove, and buy a bottle. Then Shades of Pale will have a tap room in the near future.
Gavin: What was it like setting up the facility and what kind of equipment did you bring in?
It all started with the building. To get your federal permit started you have to have a lease in place with the land lord agreeing that you can make alcohol. You also have to have purchased your still. So the still sat in our building for about a year while we got our permits in place. But even before you get your federal permit, you have to have the correct city permits. Yes, it was a lot of work, and a lot of meetings. Our still is a 100 gallon Hybrid Electric Still. Steven Cage engineered and designed it. I went with his still for many reasons. I wanted something I could make good whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, brandy and blue agave on. I kept asking Steven for a still with a whiskey top on it. Most of his had a column on the still. So one night Steven called me and asked me about a new design he was thinking about. I love it, and as I am sure I will purchase a bigger still with a different design. I will always keep it for a finishing still or even R&D for other products. We have just purchased a boiler so we will be converting it over to steam here shortly.
Gavin: How was it testing the first batches and finding the right recipe to bottle for production?
That was the nice part of hiring Dan. Dan has made some really good whiskeys in the past. Us owners got together and really liked his malt whiskey. We talked and decided to put our own touch on it adding a little malted honey barely. Not making it taste like the honey whiskeys out on the markets, but just giving it a hint of honey. It has a nice caramel flavor with a just a hint of honey. But like any whiskey I think people will pick up other nice flavors.
Gavin: For those who haven't tasted it yet, how would you best describe the vodka you make?
I really am pleased with our vodka. It has a very smooth flavor. We really tried to make it as neutral as possible. Something you can drink alone or mixed. Our vodka is a mixture of wheat and corn and I love the outcome of mixing the two grains. We hand made a special filter system for the vodka. And it all worked out very nicely to give us that very smooth taste.
Gavin: Did you have a lot of issues with the DABC before launch or did it go smoothly?
I went in and met with the DABC in the being to make sure I was doing everything correct. They threw me a couple of curve balls, but for the most part they have been very good to work with. I must say I have been pleased working with the DABC to this point.
Gavin: You opened up earlier this year, what were the first couple months like for you?
Torture! We had to wait, and wait for some federal approvals. We did not expect the long lead-times. In the past you could get things turned around with the feds in about a week. After the government shut down, some of the approvals went out to 60 days and longer. So we had our State permit in hand by January 1. We could distill, but we could not put a label on our bottle. It was hard to wait. I tried everything to get approval on the labels from the feds. I got Jim Matheson's office working with the TTB to push something's though for us. Not sure if that even worked, but we finial got approval shortly after. It did give us time to start putting our whiskey in barrels. And it gave us a little time to play around with our products fine tuning them. So in all it was not that bad.
Gavin: A lot of the branding is focused on the heritage and craft behind the drink. What made you decide to focus on those aspects and how have people responded?
Branding is hard. You talk to five marketing companies and they will all tell you something different. In the end we just really want to provide a local hand craft product. So that is the direction we took. We wanted something with a local name that would reach out to people. And Sugar House is a perfect name for a Spirits company in many ways. The name "Sugar House" has history to making rum. From day one we planned on using as many local items as we can in making our spirits. We are a proud to say we are a part of Utah's Own.
Gavin: Are you looking to add any new drinks to the line yet, or mainly focusing on the one for now?
So we have a malted whiskey in the barrel aging. I would expect our vodka will take a pretty good chunk out of our production schedule. So many ideas are floating around, but very little time to do them. Another local distillery just did a very nice gin. So we might leave that alone for now and do something else like a rum. And then come back and do a gin. We were hoping to use the summer heat to ferment our rum, but it might be fall till we get around to it. Also we have been playing with other whiskey flavors, and even have distilled some blue agave (We can not call it tequila). The nice thing is we can sell bottles our of our store. So we might offer something on a small scale that is not available in the Utah State Liquor Store.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and Sugar House Distillery over the rest of the year?
I am really expecting you will be able to purchase our malt whiskey by the holidays. There will not be enough for distribution in the early months. So it will only be available to those of you that come purchase it at our store. We are just opening and we are already expanding. We have just purchased more equipment to make more product each time on a larger scale. It should really help us out.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Yes, Please come see our still. Let us show you how we are making these hand craft spirits. You can purchase bottles directly from us, and it really helps us out. We are open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Our address is 2212 South West Temple, Unit #14 in the Tempest Industrial Park. Please add us on social media on Facebook