The past decade saw a craft beer revolution across the nation, with new breweries small and large popping up in every locale, and thirsty patrons comparing and sampling a variety of tastes produced by their neighbors.
Now a craft distillery revolution seems to be in the works, with several spirit producers, including Sons of Liberty in South Kingstown, popping up around the state. The newest member of the club is South County Distillers in Westerly, located in the Grey Sail Brewing complex and the product of a collaboration between Grey Sail owner Jennifer Brinton, her husband and co-owner Alan and distiller Ryan Gwozdz, formerly the head brewer at Mayflower Brewing Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The distillery, which launched earlier this year, produces vodka, gin and white rum, bottles of which hit shelves of liquor stores, bars and restaurants in late August, across Rhode Island as well as in eastern Connecticut, which lies just steps from the distillery.
For Brinton, who started Grey Sail in 2011, the idea of having a distillery had been something that floated in her minds for quite some time, but she and her husband weren’t sure if or when it would become a reality.
“It was something Alan, my husband, had wanted to do eventually,” Brinton said. “Maybe we eventually would’ve gotten into it, but (Gwozdz) was certainly the catalyst to get it going now.”
About two years, Gwozdz, then with Mayflower, was looking to shake things up a bit in his personal and professional life. A longtime home brewer in his free time, he took his passion for beer professionally and sought out a new challenge.
“When I first got into brewing after work, my hobby was home brewing, and I would home brew, but then after brewing professionally all day every day I needed to deviate a little bit and spirits seemed like a natural progression,” Gwozdz said. “I was looking to move down to this area from Massachusetts and I had known Jen and Alan through their previous head brewer who I had worked with at Mayflower and I just thought it would be a good fit for their operation.”
“(Gwozdz) said ‘I’m really interested in distilling and I think I’ve got a knack for it and I’m looking for a place to do it and business partners,’ so we already really liked him and thought ‘yeah we could partner with him easily,’ so that was the inception of it,” Brinton said.
They quickly got to work on converting an old garage space they had purchased along with their beer garden in 2015 into a full-fledged distillery, with large stills installed this past winter to bring their dream into reality.
Soon they had their licensing with the federal government approved and then their state licensing, and were all on track to begin producing spirits in the spring.
Then, COVID-19 hit.
“We were certainly derailed from launching any spirits into the market,” Brinton said.
However, there was one product they knew they could produce with their equipment that they knew would fill a need: hand sanitizer.
“Our country was short on hand sanitizer and everyone needed it, so availability plummeted with the supply chain not having it in stock and the need skyrocketed overnight literally, so there was this huge gap to fill,” Brinton said. “At this same time, the TTB, Tax and Trade Bureau, that’s the branch of the government that breweries and distilleries report to, they opened up the regulations and allowed United States distilleries to start manufacturing hand sanitizer.”
The World Health Organization put out a recipe for hand sanitizer for brewers and distillers that had the capacity to produce the much-needed alcohol-based disinfectant and the Brintons and Gwozdz quickly got to work.
“We had just installed the equipment, we were kind of doing test runs and stuff, hand sanitizer really became our pilot, it was our test system, making hand sanitizer, so we immediately started doing it,” Brinton said. “It was the first product we ever produced.”
While being a hand sanitizer company wasn’t what any of them originally had in mind, they were glad to produce it for the community.
“It was great,” Brinton said. “It was what was needed, so we’re proud that we did that, we’re happy we did it and it certainly helped Ryan with working out the equipment and how the equipment’s going to run for everything with the spirits and then the sanitizer project itself was great because it filled a need.”
They produced between 4,000 to 5,000 hand sanitizer bottles, the majority of which were donated to frontline workers, food pantry workers, the elderly, nursing homes and traveling nurses, many of whom worked independently or for agencies in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut.
They also received a boost from local businesses both small and large.
“In the process, some local companies and some major companies too, small and large, purchased the hand sanitizer, really just to cover the costs, so when they purchased, it enabled us to invest right back in the project and continue to churn out bottles that we were able to donate to frontline workers,” Brinton said. (With) every business that purchased, we explained that whole process that if you’re able to pay for it and help us with the project to cover the material costs, we’re covering the labor costs and the overhead, those purchases helped us with the bottles and the caps and some of the raw materials that we needed, so it really was a project that we produced it, but I have to say that every business that purchased from us enabled the project, which was huge and they were happy to do it, which was wonderful.”
After a few months, and with the amount of hand sanitizer available increased, they were able to return to distilling spirits, first producing vodka and gin, which hit the market in late July.
“Vodka and gin were the first two out (and they were) very well received,” Brinton said.
All of the spirits produced by South County Distillers are made straight from grains, many of which are produced in New England, and made from a fresh mash rather than premade grain-neutral spirits, which creates a fresher spirit and allows them more control over the flavor profile and finish of each liquor.
While both the vodka and gin have been well received, Brinton said it’s the latter that has especially received praise.
“The gin I think has really taken a lot of people aback and really surprised them with how good the gin is,” Brinton said, including herself. “People who never liked gin before were saying ‘wow, if gin tasted like this, I would’ve been drinking gin (before),’ so it’s a really great product there.”
Rum was the next product to come out of South County Distillers, with it just being packaged and ready to be shipped out to distributors at the time of the interview, and will soon be joined by canned craft cocktails, namely vodka sodas and mojitos, a personal favorite of Brinton, and agave, which is to tequila what sparkling wine is to champagne.
“(We) can’t call it tequila because it’s kind of like champagne, you have to be in the Champagne region of France to be champagne, same thing with tequila, you need to be in Mexico in a certain region, so we’re going to be doing an agave spirit,” Gwozdz said.
For the cocktails, Brinton says they’ve been trying out different mixes in their Grey Sail taproom for customers to sample.
“We’ve seen a lot of great feedback here at the taproom where we’ve been mixing the cocktails and serving them as a test to see,” Brinton said.
For darker spirits, South County Distillers has laid down barrels of different bourbons and rye whiskeys, which will be aged for a few years according to proper technique before being released, and down the line, Gwozdz said they will also look to barrel age rum, single malts and other spirits as well.
“We are purists,” Brinton said. “Everything will be aged according to the proper standards.”
In Brinton’s eyes, the attention to detail that goes into each and every bottle produced locally is one of the biggest appeals to customers for craft distilled spirits.
“Like anything else, even with the breweries, I think it’s just that local connection, knowing that it’s made right here,” Brinton said. “I think also that it is truly, and our bottles say it, it is handcrafted and Ryan runs every step of the process. He is personally invested (so) you know exactly the face, the hands that made the product that’s in that bottle right through to the packaging, so I think there’s that personal connection which makes the locals so important, especially now as we’re kind of shrinking because everything’s local, nobody’s really traveling, and everybody’s trying to support local and I think that’s great for businesses like ours when you really have that focus on everything local.”
In this time as well, the support from other craft distillers and brewers among each other can’t be understated.
“The support so far has been great and it’s just a nice industry to be in,” Brinton said of the local craft brewing and distilling business community. “When you really have that focus on everything local... I think it’s a nice time to highlight what each of us have to offer, so that’s just kind of trying to see the silver lining in COVID and that’s trying to make that a positive, that we’re focusing on it because we have to.”
South County Distillers is located in the middle of the Grey Sail Brewing complex, directly in between its taproom and beer garden at 63 Canal Street in Westerly, and their products are available at liquor stores and bars and restaurants around South County as well as around Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, and soon to be available wherever Grey Sail products are sold.
“We’ll slowly work our way out from (Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut),” Brinton said. “We wanted to make sure it was kind of our 180 degree radius at this point and we’ll go from there.”
For more information, visit their website, southcountydistillers.com.