Spirits of Cape Ann – Ryan & Wood Inc. – Beauport Vodka Launch
Gloucester distillery brings craft approach to alcoholic beverages
By Joel Brown, Globe Correspondent | July 2, 2009
GLOUCESTER – Beauport, Knockabout, Folly Cove. The names have historic meaning on Cape Ann.
Beauport – “good harbor’’ in French – was an early, poetic name for Gloucester. A knockabout was a type of fishing boat without a bowsprit, designed in Essex. Folly Cove is an inlet on the Rockport shore that lends itself to navigational errors and, by some accounts, rum-running during Prohibition.
But the names are about to get new meanings. As in, “I’d like a Beauport Martini, please.’’ “Pour me a Knockabout and tonic.’’ “Can you make a Folly Cove and cranberry?’’
In a bland industrial park just off a Route 128 rotary, Bob Ryan and his nephew Dave Wood are running what they believe is the first still in Gloucester – the first legal one, anyway – since the start of Prohibition in 1919. Their hand-crafted, premium-priced Beauport Vodka is hitting the shelves of a few Cape Ann package stores and bars. Knockabout Gin and Folly Cove Rum will follow in coming weeks, and wider distribution is planned.
“You don’t want to ramp up and burst on the scene too large and have a pipeline you can’t fill,’’ Ryan said. “You want to take advantage of being a bit exclusive, something that people want to have, maybe the rare baseball card of the industry type of attitude, and be sure that you put out what you want to put out.’’
From the front, Ryan & Wood Inc. Distilleries headquarters looks like a regular strip-mall office. But the building drops down a slope at its rear, creating a warehouse-like space three stories high. It’s there that the two men and still operator Jim Cook work amid pallets of grain and other raw materials, tanks of vodka and barrels of rum and whiskey spirits stacked to the ceiling.
The centerpiece of their efforts is the 152-gallon alembic pot still, a wonderful contraption out of Jules Verne or “Willy Wonka,’’ with a giant hammered-brass pot and “helmet’’ beside two 17-foot towers dotted with portholes, all connected with pipes and tubes. Made in Germany and heated by steam, the still was a $90,000 investment.
Inside it, American barley, wheat, and rye are the raw materials for a carefully monitored double distillation that delivers an eye-watering 95-percent-alcohol spirit that will then be diluted with local spring water down to 80-proof (40 percent alcohol) vodka. The gin is made much like the vodka, but with the addition of botanicals, including dried citrus peel that gives it a bright, summery taste. There’s also an all-rye whiskey in the works. The rum starts as molasses instead of grain.
“We get a lot of people come in and ask if there’s anything local. I think the Gloucester people will try it, and he has a good product,’’ said Louis Linquata, who owns Seabreeze Liquors and Railroad Avenue Liquors in Gloucester, where he’ll stock Ryan & Wood products.
It’s an interesting project for the 56-year-old Ryan, who worked as a commercial banker in town, and the 37-year-old Wood, a real estate lawyer in Beverly.
“I have been accused of this being my red convertible at age 50,’’ Ryan said, his smile showing no signs of midlife crisis. “It’s an adventure.’’
For Ryan and Wood it’s also about crafting a product they are proud of and staying connected to their roots. Before selling their first bottle, Ryan was honored earlier this month as the 2009 small-business person of the year in Manchester by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.
“I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else,’’ said Wood. “He wants to make his mark on history with this, and I think he will. To be part of that is a heck of a lot more gratifying than making junior partner at Hale & Dorr, if that’s the analog to the distilling business. It’s the reason for getting out of bed. Otherwise, looking at a future of closing loans, it’d just be a little more bleak, I guess.’’
Bob Ryan and his nephew, Dave Wood, have launched the new Ryan & Wood micro-distillery in Gloucester.
They’re using the copper Arnold Holstein still above to make designer vodka and rum.
Hannah Jumper knew how to work a crowd.
On the morning of July 8, 1856, she rallied 200 wives and mothers and convinced them to follow her on a town-wide raid of all the rum in Rockport.
Legend has it that the women met in Dock Square with little hatchets hidden in their lace shawls. After a short speech from Jumper, a 31-year-old redheaded seamstress with some Oprah-style star power, the crowd began patrolling the streets smashing every cask and jug they could find. Five hours later, after every drop of known liquor had been spilled, the women went home to cook dinner.
Jumpergate is interesting for a couple of reasons. The Rockport rum dealers took the women to court but a judge ruled the crowd had a right to take action against a public nuisance. Who knows what effect that legal decision had on families with barking dogs, loud kids and over-the-top lawn ornaments.
But it’s also kind of interesting to imagine what Jumper would do today if she happened to wander over to Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park, where the first licensed microdistillery in eastern Massachusetts is cooking up its first batch of premium vodka. Bob Ryan and his nephew, Dave Wood, are tending a big-bellied copper still imported from Germany that looks like something right out of Wonka’s chocolate factory. Even Hannah might be impressed.
Ryan and Wood are blazing the way with the latest trend aimed at satisfying our love for gourmet and our reverence for all things local and, of course, our fondness for top-shelf liquor. There are about 100 microdistilleries now up and running across the country. A lot of them have sprung up in the Midwest, where farmers with long family histories of moonshining have plenty of grains and fruits to spare.
But there’s also a good number of guys like Ryan and Wood who have set up small designer distilleries as a second career because it’s interesting, profitable and, probably most important of all, because it’s fun.
“We’ve run through the microbrewing trend, and this is kind of a natural progression of that,” says Wood, a lawyer by day and a state-of–the-art moonshiner by night. “People want a locally produced artisan product made with local ingredients and with attention to quality.”
Ryan figures the market for locally produced sprits is an extension of the Martha Stewart phenomena that has triggered a popular appreciation of quality and attention to detail in all things culinary and domestic.
“And, this is a little bit of ego, but we think Gloucester deserves us,” says Ryan with a smile.
Beauport Vodka, the first batch of spirits created by Ryan and Wood Distilleries, is ready to go. All they are waiting on now is the bottles, which will be hand-filled and corked — probably by someone in Ryan’s enormous extended family.
Beauport Vodka should hit store shelves in January. Next up will be Folly Cove Rum, which Ryan and Wood hope to begin selling sometime next summer. But that’s just the beginning. There are all sorts of ingredients to tinker with, endless combinations of flavors to try. And all sorts of niche markets to tap.
Ryan and Wood are riding the edge of a potentially big shift in the liquor industry, and the edge is often an excellent place to be. Not only could they end up changing what people drink on the North Shore, they may end up changing some of our perceptions about spirits and how we drink them. And that could be some good news for all of us — even Hannah Jumper.
Owning and operating a mircodistillery isn’t for everyone. You’ve got to have a lot of time and patience. Having some community good will and a small pile of startup cash also doesn’t hurt.
Ryan has all of that. A lot of people in Gloucester know him from his years on Gloucester’s waterfront running Atlantic Seafood, before declining fish stocks and government regulation forced the fleet and the shore-side fish dealers to do some dramatic downsizing. Other people know him for the role he played in launching Gloucester Bank and Trust. Between Gloucester and his adopted hometown of Manchester, there probably isn’t a volunteer board or commission he hasn’t served on.
After Ryan left the waterfront, he spent some time taking care of his aging parents and helping with community projects, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“I felt maybe I was getting a little too old too quickly,” he says. That changed when Wood happened to mention a story he read about a microdistillery in Vermont. They talked it over and decided, why not us?
They traveled up to Freeport to visit an operation called Maine Distilleries that’s bottling Cold Water Vodka. Sure, there was a side trip to the LL Bean outlet, where Ryan’s wife Kathy picked up lots of new sweaters and fleece, but they liked what they saw at Maine Distilleries and decided to learn more.
They flew out to Flagstaff, Ariz. for a workshop where they learned the ins and out of the microdistillery business — the history of spirits, the secrets of fermentation and the art of distilling.
“I don’t think we knew what we were getting into,” says Kathy Ryan, referring to the equipment, workspace and the long and grueling licensing process. “But after the workshop I was glad Bob found something he was excited about.”
It took about 18 months to get through the paperwork for a state and federal license. There was even a lengthy approval process for the label — it has to include the surgeon general’s warning and you can’t use the American flag or make any claims about health benefits.
But the legwork is done and now, on the ground floor of the meticulous Ryan and Wood Distilleries plant, the enormous shiny copper-pot still is churning and slowly drawing every last drop of alcohol out of carefully fermented batches of mash.
Ryan says people usually have the same reaction when they see the still. It’s an oohh and ahh chorus, a lot like you hear at Fourth of July fireworks. “It’s a piece of old-world style technology right here in Gloucester,” he says.
Wood likes to do the tours. He’ll take you around to several stainless steel vats and explain the chemical process taking place inside each container. He’ll tell you about yeast and enzymes and show all the gauges and tubes and a four-spout hand-operated bottling machine.
There are big sacks of grain in one corner of the plant and in the other corner large wooden barrels, some of which were picked up from the Jack Daniels Distillery, where they were used to store bourbon. Wood says recycling those barrels gives fresh batches of spirits a slightly different taste.
Ryan jumps in with details about the still and all the help the business has gotten along the way from organizations like the American Distillers, local microbrewers and people who stopped by to wish them well. And both guys will talk history and the role liquor plays in American culture.
“This is the second oldest profession,” says Ryan, who adds that throughout history brewers and distillers have all met the need of a particular time and place. “Every farmer and every pioneer had a still,” he says.
And a lot of working families who grew up in cities and towns also tried their hand at distilling. Ryan and Wood say the most common thing they hear from visitors is that their parents or grandparents made small jugs of homemade hooch.
Still, they know there have been plenty of Hannah Jumpers who have long been blaming the product instead of the consumer for a list of troubles that fit under the heading of alcohol abuse.
“People are just getting out of the interruption of Prohibition,” says Ryan. “We’re going to try to fight that and the stigma of spirits.”
A new still in town
While Ryan and Wood hope to be distributing their products throughout eastern Massachusetts, they want to do more than fill and ship orders. They would like to make the distillery a tourist spot where visitors can come in and see the whole process — grains to spirits.
One possibility Ryan has been chewing over is the idea of linking up with Gloucester’s new cruise ship port that will bring thousands of overseas visitors to Gloucester and the North Shore. If those tourists stop by the distillery for a tour and they happen to pick up a bottle of locally distilled spirits as a souvenir, everyone’s happy.
Ryan and Wood have also reached out in other directions. They recently hosted a distilling workshop run by Bavarian Brewers and Distillers, the company that sold them their still. More than 30 people signed up to learn the craft and possibly follow in Ryan and Wood’s footsteps. And that’s fine with them. Camaraderie seems to be big among small brewers and distillers.
In addition to that, Ryan’s soon to be son-in-law Mark Mancini, a Bentley College student who is finishing up a degree in economics and finance, arranged for the start-up distillery to be a student project. Ryan and Wood opened the plant up to 160 students who got lessons in distilling and then came up with business plans on how to put Beauport Vodka on the map.
“We got a huge benefit from that,” says Ryan. The students did focus groups, devised marketing strategies and critiqued how the distillery was running so far. And they apparently all had a good time doing it.
And that was particularly satisfying to Ryan and Wood, who genuinely enjoy sharing everything they’ve learned. They want everyone to get in on the fun — tourists, the business community, but most of all friends and family.
Ryan’s son, Doug, is graduating this spring from Fordham University in New York and is considering applying to law school somewhere in Boston. The thinking is maybe he can work in the distillery while he earns his law degree.
Ryan likes that idea and he especially likes what his new business has done for his image with his kids.
“My son moved out of the house four years ago to go to college and all of sudden he’s back saying, ‘Hey, my dad’s cool,’” he says with a laugh.
As romantic as it may be to run a funky German-made still in a small plant in a corner of Gloucester, the big question ahead for Ryan and Wood is, will their products sell? Will there be a big enough demand for handcrafted spirits to keep the distillery going?
Ryan and Wood are both pretty confident sales will be good, and they’re not the only ones who are predicting success. Lenny Linquata also thinks Ryan and Wood are on to something, and Linquata should know — he owns two of Gloucester’s largest liquor stores, Sea Breeze Liquors in East Gloucester and Rail Road Ave. Liquors downtown.
“Fishermen’s Brew has done quite well,” says Linquata, referring to Gloucester’s hometown lager, which is made by the Cape Ann Brewing Company.
Linquata says spirits might take a little longer to catch on, but they will. The one question he has is price. And one would think that a handcrafted bottle of vodka is going to be considerably more expensive than even the high-end stuff massed produced in large distilling plants. But Ryan and Wood say that’s not the case.
“We’ll be competitively priced,” says Woods. “We can compete because we don’t have the high-paid directors and staff and all the overhead.”
Linquata does have one suggestion for the new business: If you want to sell something from Gloucester, your surest bet is to make it look like Gloucester. And in this case one of the best ways to do that might be to use an image of the city’s famous Fishermen’s Memorial.
“With the Man at the Wheel on the label, you can’t go wrong,” he says. Ryan and Wood already have a label for Beauport Vodka, one they describe as “pretty vanilla,” but who knows where they’ll go with Folly Cove Rum and the rest of their line as it develops.
Linquata figures they’ll go pretty far, and Gloucester and the rest of Cape Ann will be eager to check out the new hometown drink.
“I can see it in ever bar in the city,” he says.
E-mail Barbara Taormina at firstname.lastname@example.org.