JOHN HOLL

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Triple Threats: Businesses That Brew, Distill and Make Wine

Posted by: John Holl in Articles

Stand for just a moment with your back to the large white event tent and soak in the scene. Directly in front of you is the winery and its tasting room. To your left is the distillery, where aging barrels hold copper-colored liquid and other spirits. Across the stone plaza and to your right is the brewery itself and its pale ales, sour brews and one-off concoctions that delight the palate. All of this is in just one location on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, in what CEO Jay Harman calls “Boozney Land.”

It’s where Nantucket Vineyard, Triple Eight Distillery and Cisco Brewers live in harmony and serve libations that can please any kind of drinker, any kind of taste. It’s a triple threat, a hat trick, and becoming more common around the United States.

The wine boom of the 1970s and 1980s led into the craft beer revolution that began in the decades after and continues today. Now artisanal distilleries are  gaining momentum. Most beverage entrepreneurs have long been content with running one business, but there are a growing number of breweries—including Rogue Ales, Dogfish Head, Samuel Adams, New Holland and others—that are adding distilling to their operations. There are wineries linked to breweries, including Wagner Valley in New York, Old North State in North Carolina, Corcoran Vineyards in Virginia and Firestone Walker in California.

Only a handful of companies, however, try all three.

Pick Your Poison

“You have to be a little crazy,” says Bryan Siddle, director of operations at Missouri’s Crown Valley, when asked why he would chose to run a winery, brewery and distillery. All three play a part in a tourist destination crafted by Siddle, south of St. Louis in Ste. Genevieve. In addition to the libation-making facilities, there are  lodging, a restaurant, cattle and buffalo farms, a golf course, soda-making facilities and—wait for it—a tiger sanctuary.

“The hardest part is that is different. I have three bottling lines for three different products. Then there is the marketability, the production and making sure each is made consistently,” Siddle says. “It’s not easy.”

So why do it? “Well, wine is out of style, craft beer is hotter than Hades, and craft distillers are getting hot,” he says. Siddle is trying to have something that appeals to everyone, to entice people to visit Crown Valley and then stick around for a while afterward. He hits all the demographics with what he offers, but admits there are people who come to the brewery who don’t visit the winery and vice versa.

“You get so many types of personalities that for us, with agritourism, it makes sense to have many different beverage operations,” he says. The winery was conceived in 2000 and opened two years later. Three years after that, he opened a sparkling wine facility. Noticing the trend (and because of his own fondness for beer—his grandfather was a brewer at Stag in Illinois), in 2007 he converted an old schoolhouse into a brewery. Then, for good measure, “I said, Why not just do some spirits?”

Similar thinking went into the evolution of Round Barn Winery, Brewery and Distillery in Baroda, MI, about 14 miles from the Indiana border near Lake Michigan. Rick Moersch was an accomplished winemaker who, after a few decades working for others, opened his own winery, Heart of the Vineyard, in 1992. Four years later, the state laws changed and allowed wineries to hold distillation licenses, so Moersch took courses and decided to start making brandies and cognacs. He and wife Sherrie purchased an Amish-built round barn from a community in Indiana and used it to house the distillery. Soon enough people began calling the venture Round Barn, so Heart of the Vineyard was dropped and the business became known for its signature architectural feature.

There was some extra space in that large barn, so the Moersches converted part into a banquet hall, where weddings and other events are regularly held. They obtained a liquor license to serve their wine and spirits on the property but faced a problem: If they wanted to serve beer, they would have to make it themselves.

“Basically, we started some home brewing on a pilot system,” explains Christian Moersch, the brewery operations manager and son of the founder. “It was enough to do weddings.” Soon enough, however, there was an extra keg of this or that lying around between special events, and soon beer was moving out the door along with its beverage brethren.

Realizing that they had another potential consumer business on their hands, they worked with consultants, solicited advice from other Michigan breweries like Founders and “were shown the way.” A 10-barrel system was installed along with a bottling line, and now there are 11 brews in their lineup, including seasonals. Overall, they are producing about 1,200 barrels of beer, 10,000 cases of wine and about 10,000 cases of spirits per year.

“It was dumb luck that we ended up with all three,” Moersch says.

At Cisco on Nantucket, there was less happenstance and a little more planning involved, as is evident when visiting its brick and cobblestone courtyard full of tables and benches. Salty local fishermen and madras-wearing tourists mix, each purchasing the local drink of their choice from one of the three beverage “houses” at the periphery. The Triple
Eight Distillery house is seemingly the most popular, serving everything from Bloody Marys to single-malt Nantucket whiskey. The winery house is what you would expect from vino tasters: swirling, sipping and spitting. At the brewery house, it’s not uncommon for customers to be lined up six deep at the small bar.

Most first-time tourists and visitors come for the tour. They likely return several more times during their vacation simply to imbibe. When Jeffrey Horner, the brewer, gives tours, there are two rules: The first is that guests are encouraged to interrupt the spiel at any time with questions. The second is that a glass never stays empty.

As Horner—a man with muttonchops and welcoming attitude—recited the rules, growlers appeared as if by wizardry, with everything from the unfiltered Belgian-style wheat ale known as Grey Lady to a very brown IPA, a tongue-in-cheek nod to black IPAs or Cascadian dark ales. Contents were tipped into glasses, and Horner spent the next hour or so talking about the brewing equipment (Cisco also brews at two locations on the mainland), the winery (pours of blueberry pinot gris and a chardonnay were offered) and the distillery, where the presentation wrapped up with a sample of jalapeño pineapple vodka. This reporter can attest that it is difficult to make it through the tour with a clear head, but all things in moderation. Be cautioned however: The heavy mixing of all three drinks can lead to a less enthusiastic start to the next day.

This triumvirate started with wine. Dean and Melissa Long simply wanted to plant grapes, and so in 1981 they founded the Nantucket Vineyard. They hoped to create wines with native grapes, but the local weather made that an impossibility, so now wines are made on the island with the choicest grapes selected and brought in from around the country.

A little more than a decade later, Randy and Wendy Hudson came together on the island and formed a working relationship with Dean and Melissa. They moved to the property, worked for the business and opened a brewery.

After a few years Jay Harman came on. He was a college student when Randy and Wendy met him, working on a business plan and contemplating opening his own brewery on the island. It was a happy instance of join-them-rather-than-beat-them, and Harman, in his role as brewery CEO, has been a tireless proponent of the operation. Brewery lore tells that he capped 60,000 bottles of beer during his first summer with the company—no small task.

As the business grew and the need for more space became apparent, Cisco expanded and Dean had the foresight to build a distillery, which he named Triple Eight. It is known for its vodkas, with flavors like cranberry and blueberry, but its rum and whiskey are also sought after. Both, by the way, clock in at 88.8 proof. The whiskey, called The Notch, sells for $888 per bottle—and it moves fast.

Cisco Brewers is not unlike an adult amusement park without the rides (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lift in its refurbished VW van) and after just a few minutes with a drink in hand, it’s clear to see why it is one of the most popular spots on the island. It is also, interestingly enough, not the only brewery-winery-distillery in Massachusetts. The other is Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, which also produces cider and perry.

Three Times The Fun, Three Times The Problems

Ask anyone who runs a brewery what it’s like and the response is often likened to having three jobs. So, what’s it like to juggle beer, wine and spirits?

“It’s tricky,” says Harman, but doable, because in most cases, if the need arises, employees in one area know how to work in the other two, and all three facilities can operate largely on their own.

That’s not to say that all the equipment is the same. All of the businesses interviewed for this article have three separate bottling lines with their own unique settings, temperaments and moving parts. In most cases they need to be housed in separate areas, which means additional overhead and expenses. They all have their own governmental regulations. Nothing—everyone said—about running a brewery, winery and distillery is cheap.

“It’s a challenge,” Siddle says. “There are pluses and minuses. The hardest part of it is that each has different marketability, production and consistencies.” He says that it wasn’t very long after opening each new venture that there were new piles of paperwork and regulations to sort through. All very routine and very specific—the kind that makes eyes glaze over but that is important and mandatory nonetheless.

“Working within the letter of the law for all three takes a lot of time,” says Rick Moersch of Round Barn. Learning the trade does as well.

Moersch freely admits that the family members don’t know all they can, but says they are continually striving to improve their game—as all business owners do. They have brought in consultants and tweaked recipes. They have taken classes in all three beverage fields and follow trends. “It’s all fermentation at its core, but the difference is what happens during and after,” he says.

Having three distinct businesses in one portfolio means always having many irons in many fires. But there’s also a larger chance for reward, both financially and in terms of customer appreciation.

Paperwork and equipment is nothing, however, compared with yeast.

Having a winery means keeping things clean. The wild yeast strains (or just the everyday ones) that brewers have embraced as of late would ruin batches of wine, so avoiding cross contamination is key. Cisco produces a sour ale series called The Woods, and Horner, the brewer, says that while there has never been a problem with cells jumping from the brewery to the winery, everyone keeps a close eye on the operations to make sure the microbes stay where they are supposed to.

A Brewer, A Wine Maker and a Distiller Walk Into A Bar…

The West Coast has long been a powerhouse in the post-Prohibition wine and beer movements. The McMenamin brothers’ empire is a testament to that fact. With 24 breweries, it’s in the top 50 of craft beer producers in the country. There are also two distilleries and a winery in the company. In one location—Edgefield in Troutdale, OR—all three live side by side. It’s where brewer Jeffrey Cooley, distillery manager Clark McCool and Davis Palmer, the winemaker, show up each day to put their skills into action and engage in friendly competition to get their beverage into customers’ glasses.

“I wouldn’t say that any one of our three production areas is superior. They each have aspects which make them unique. We are all closely intertwined and work together toward a common goal of quality and experimentation,” says Palmer, who worked as a McMenamins brewer until 2000, when he pitched in on the grape harvest and was immediately hooked on wine. “Not to sound like a lush, but there is nothing better than a cold beer after a hard day of work, a glass of wine with a good meal and a dram of whiskey to end an evening.”

Cooley cites the “community support” he gets from the wine and whiskey sides of the business. All three help one another out with work when needed (the washes for their whiskies come from the brew house) and one man’s, er, trash … well … “We have unprecedented access to both spirit barrels and wine barrels for aging beers,” Cooley says. Score one for the beer drinkers!

If you were to draw an operational model, picture a triangle with the distillery at the top and winery and brewery at each bottom corner, McCool says. The arrows of flow would point in each direction and every which way in between.

“This tangled web produces hints of all three departments in our products,” McCool says. “Distillers’ fortification brandy in the winery port program; used whiskey, rum and brandy cooperage in the new barrel-aged beer program in the brewery, cool stuff.”

For those who know all three beverages, it is no secret that while beer can be turned around in a few weeks, and wine in a few months, good whiskey can take years. McCool worked on the wine side of things as far back as 1993. He switched to spirits in 2008, and it’s been a slow and steady climb since.

“Some of the barrels perhaps stay with you your entire career, never leaving the nest,” he observes. “So you are constantly reminded of where you have been, and always looking forward to where you are going.”

All three agree that they wouldn’t be as successful if not for the cooperation and support they get from their counterparts. Besides, at the end of the day, they are working for the same common goal.

Something for Everyone

No one is loyal to any one beer anymore, Siddle says. It used to be that if you drank Bud, that’s all you drank. Now people come into his brewery and want to try what’s new. They want hoppy, or a brew packed with bready malt characteristics. So, he—and others—constantly need to be ready with a drink people will like, and the same goes for spirits and wine.

Cisco has seen tremendous sales with its jalapeño pineapple-flavored vodka, and that has helped bring on new spirits that will appeal to an eager public down the line. It’s the beer, however, that is the most popular—and successful.

The brewery, distillery and winery staff must know the flavor in each product to point people—even self-proclaimed beer-only, wine-only or spirits-only consumers—toward another beverage. They draw comparisons with grains or tannins, yeast or hops, and take the time to educate consumers who usually leave with new knowledge and a new appreciation. The three beverages play off one another.

“We’ve been at this a long time, so we don’t put out something that we don’t enjoy,” Harman says.

Moersch concurs.

“If you can’t find something you like to drink here, you don’t like to drink.”   

This article first appeared in All About Beer Magazine