Craft Distiller Details Plans for Spa City

Craft Distiller Details Plans for Spa City
Keith Atkinson

They may not achieve the same numbers as craft beer brewers, but small-batch, craft distilleries are definitely becoming a “thing” in Arkansas.

Arkansas Business has reported on Delta Dirt Distillery in Helena-West Helena and Crystal Ridge Distillery in Hot Springs, and now we bring you more news of Hot Springs Distilling, a project headed by Keith Atkinson, an accounting professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and his 36-year-old son, Scott. Their objective: to produce high-quality craft spirits.

“There’s been a real revolution in the whiskey and spirits industry in the last 10 years,” Keith Atkinson said. A decade ago, customers found their choice of gin limited to just a few brands that weren’t very different from each other, Atkinson said. “There’s been an explosion in craft distilling and now you can get hundreds of different kinds of gin, different flavors and so forth,” Atkinson said. “We hope to get in on that, to have a locally sourced product.”

He’s right about that explosion. The American Craft Spirits Association says that the number of craft distillers in the United States rose 26 percent in 2017 alone, to 1,589.

Hot Springs Distilling’s focus will be on gin and whiskey, including bourbon and rye. “We’ll make it all with a small still and we’ll be right there developing recipes,” Atkinson said. “And we want to be innovative. We want to do more than just produce the usual spirits that you find on the shelf in most liquor stores.”

The innovation, Atkinson said, isn’t limited to small-batch, craft distillers. The major distilleries also have increased the variety of their offerings.

The Atkinsons plan to experiment in developing their products by using different kinds of aging barrels, mash recipes and distillation processes and to solicit community input by offering tastings. “We hope to get the community and interested folks involved in helping us develop the kind of spirits that they would like to drink.

“There are lots of fruits in Arkansas,” Atkinson said. “It seems to me that it would be very appropriate for us to use some Arkansas fruit and to make some Arkansas brandy.” He cited the Arkansas Black apple as being particularly suitable for brandy.

Atkinson Management LLC paid about $225,000 in June for the building at 121 Ross St. in Hot Springs, future site of Hot Springs Distilling. Atkinson put his initial investment at around $300,000.

The building will house a tasting room — Atkinson hopes to serve cocktails made from his spirits — and space for a 150-gallon still. Atkinson said the most Hot Springs Distilling could produce in a week would be three or four barrels (a barrel usually contains about 53 gallons).

Scott Atkinson is leaving his job as a software developer in Chicago to relocate to Hot Springs, said his father, who has homes in Conway and Hot Springs.

Atkinson said he and his son started thinking about establishing a distillery about five years ago and have attended classes at Moonshine University, a distilling school in Louisville, Kentucky. (Note to self: Your life won’t be complete until you have a degree from Moonshine University.)

Atkinson has also made pilgrimages to scores of distilleries around the country, having visited his 45th one right before we talked. “We’re just going around seeing what and how other people do things,” he said. “It’s amazing. Everybody does the same thing, but they all do it differently.”

Atkinson puts the opening of Hot Springs Distilling at some time after the first of the year, although “I wish I could open next week.”