With so many small distilleries opening lately, from Ipswich's Privateer to Boston's Bully Boy, it seems like it's never been easier to launch a spirits brand. But unlike, say, becoming an Internet rap star or a "journalist" who writes about booze, you can't simply wake up one morning and declare yourself a distiller. There's more to getting a bottle to market than the eureka moment when "I like to drink" meets "I like to make money." It takes patience and planning, says Spencer McMinn of South Boston's recently launched GrandTen Distilling.
McMinn and his cousin Matthew Nuernberger had been ready since May 2011, but it wasn't until January of this year that they finalized the necessary permits to open. The biggest impediment, McMinn says, is that you have to have your space leased and equipment installed to even apply for a federal license. "So it's a huge leap of faith to have it all set up and ready to go, just to apply." The license itself isn't necessarily difficult to secure if you've prepared properly, but it's a long waiting game. Next comes the state and city licenses. "In Boston, you can't just build a distillery anywhere; you have to be in the right zone," he says. They were denied at first; the appeal took months. "Now that we've done it, it would be easier for someone to start a distillery in Boston," he says.
If that someone has the right knowhow, of course. When the project began, Nuernberger was studying business at Babson College, and McMinn was doing a post-doctorate in Paris, having earned his PhD in chemistry from the University of Virginia. It's not vital to spend years studying chemistry to learn to distill, but it certainly doesn't hurt. "Having a PhD in chemistry just means that you know how to run an experiment correctly, understand the variables, and know how to document it well," says McMinn.
His experimentation led to their flagship product, Wire Works Gin, which begins with a flavorless grain spirit; they use mostly corn grown in New York for a neutral starting point. Next it's infused with botanicals, juniper chief among them, before being redistilled. "You can think of it as an herbal vodka, almost — a flavored spirit," McMinn says of gin. "The interesting thing about making gin is that you have to have juniper, but [law and tradition] don't specify what other botanicals can be in there, so there's an almost limitless combo of botanicals and proportions."
Like most brands, GrandTen doesn't reveal its exact recipe, but it includes coriander, which comes through in Wire Works' extraordinarily spiced, peppery nose and first sip. But the secret weapon is local cranberries. Many gins use citrus to gain acidity, says McMinn, but end up tasting too much like lemon or grapefruit. Cranberry adds acidity without an overwhelming fruit profile. "That helps with the mouthfeel and blending all the botanicals together, making it smoother to drink."