By Bob Sample
Success in the world of micro-distilling starts with a great recipe and judicious choice of suppliers. The aspiring spirits maker should install top-notch whiskey-making equipment, and it really helps to add a dash of expert advice from a pro. Then select a niche – such as America’s first homegrown single-malt whiskey, lock down your brand and find a distribution match.
“What’s helped us has been finding a great distributor who’s also passionate about our product,” notes Michael Reppucci, founding partner of Sons of Liberty Spirits of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. He found that passion in Horizon Beverage Company of Rhode Island.
“Thanks to Horizon, in just three weeks after we went in operation our product was already in 100 locations,” says Reppucci. “When we interviewed potential distributors the Horizon team was truly excited about what we’re doing. They all wanted to become part of our success.”
Five years ago, the Brown University grad worked in finance, earned an excellent salary – and hated his job. When an opportunity came along to study for a master’s at the London School of Business, Reppucci grabbed it. “While I was in London I drank a lot of Scotch,” he recalls. “I started to think, why aren’t there more great American single-malt whiskeys? Why is America defined by bourbon?” he recalls.
“In truth, we can’t call our single-malt whiskey ‘Scotch’ because by definition Scotch is made in Scotland. But I reasoned that we could indeed make a great single malt – and what’s more, Americans would buy it,” he adds.
Back in the U.S. Reppucci enlisted the help of David Pickerell, the retired head of operations for Louisville, Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark. “Somehow, I managed to obtain Dave’s cell-phone number,” he recalls. “One day I called him up and went into my spiel. After I finished, there was a big silence. Then Dave said, ‘Let’s put feet on your dream.’”
So began a consultancy partnership with the two men experimenting with a myriad of single-malt recipes. They located a site for a small plant about 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. This helps duplicate some – but not all – of the qualities of Scottish distilleries. Winters are colder and the summers hotter in coastal New England than in Scotland.
“Where we are means our product takes longer to ferment,” he explains. “Most people don’t know this, but malt whiskey is a form of aged beer,” says Reppucci. “What’s more you can ‘roast’ the barley to impart a difference in flavor. We start by crafting a beer that is deep and coffee-esque, almost a stout.”
At Pickerell’s urging Reppucci installed Vendome distillers. The single-malt whiskey is aged in oak barrels, and the longer time it spends in the aging process because of the cold climate helps imbue the product with a distinct flavoring.
On December 12, 2011, the company bottled its first run of Uprising –its first product. “That name says a lot about who we are in this business – and it evokes the whole American revolutionary spirit,” Reppucci says.
Reppucci’s first cousin, Chris Guillette, is in charge of the distilling operation and Danny Murphy directs sales. Pickerell is still on board in a consulting role. The company sets modest goals for itself – at just a year and a half old, it is still very much a startup. At $33 to $37 a bottle retail, pricing follows the industry average.
“We had to consider that people tend to be conservative about what they drink – after drinking the same product for 20 years, what will make them want to try ours?” says Reppucci. To introduce the product to potential customers, the team makes the rounds of local bars and restaurants, giving out samples. They also host tours and tastings at the distillery from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday.
Reppucci says people warm quickly to the idea of trying a homegrown product. “I love to get ‘wows’ from consumers – and I usually do,” Reppucci notes. “I’ve only been in this business for a short time, but I truly love it. Launching Sons of Liberty was the best decision I ever made.”