Five Arkansas distilleries are working on new products, and business is flowing steadily for them, despite the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the opening of a sixth and bringing a seventh to a standstill.
Tasting room sales are still slow, and several distillery owners said their businesses had been affected by the downturn in tourism, though travel appears to be picking up. But the pandemic trend toward drinking at home has actually been good for distilleries that use distributors to place their products in package stores — especially those that have used reliable in-state suppliers for bottles, labels and boxes.
In addition, a temporary reduction of the federal tax distilleries pay on each gallon of spirits they produce has been helpful. The tax will be $2.70 per gallon, instead of $13.50, through Dec. 31. The industry is lobbying for an extension of the tax relief many distilleries will need to stay afloat, said Phil Brandon, owner of Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock.
His distillery, the oldest and largest by employee count (23) in the state, has benefited from the popularity of consuming alcohol at home because people can’t or aren’t willing to go to restaurants or bars. Rock Town is one of two distilleries in the state working on lines of ready-to-drink products that will be sold in liquor stores; some have already been sold from its tasting room.
Rock Town already produces about 42,000 9-liter cases a year, Brandon said. He hopes its new ready-to-drink cocktails will be on shelves by the end of this month. Varieties that are planned include a Cape Cod with cranberry, vodka and lime; a lemon drop martini; a ginger-grapefruit blend; and an Old-Fashioned.
Rock Town has also seen its liquor store sales increase lately. Its products have been shipped to about six states during the pandemic. The other distilleries that have a distributor are not selling to out-of-state liquor stores yet.
“We have been doing this 10 years and worked very hard to build a brand and develop brand loyalty, and, luckily, we’ve been able to deliver on the orders that we’ve received and continue to do so and business has actually been good,” Brandon said.
Crystal Ridge Distillery Inc. in Hot Springs, owned by Danny and Mary Bradley, is planning to put out a line of ready-to-drink canned drinks, including vodka and whiskey sodas, in 2021.
The distillery is selling only out of its storefront and has sold about 1,000 cases, each containing a dozen 750-milliliter bottles, this year, Danny Bradley said.
He said Crystal Ridge specializes in moonshines and will rotate and expand its flavored spirits. Planned fall flavors include pumpkin spice and pecan pie.
White River Distillery Inc. in Gassville (Baxter County), which opened in 2012, is working on a corn-based whiskey and rye blend called “American whiskey.”
Gary Taylor and his son, John, own the business and are its only employees. Gary Taylor said the distillery sells about 1,000 cases a year and expects its new blend to be in liquor stores in four or five months. A case is either six 750-milliliter bottles or a dozen 200-milliliter bottles.
His other plans for the future include upgrading equipment and expanding to sell the distillery’s liquors in Oklahoma and southern Missouri.
Postmaster Spirits in Newport is rolling out Thin Line vodkas, owner Ross Jones said. He expects them to be in liquor stores within three months.
That distillery has four employees and began producing liquors with political satire-themed labels a year ago.
Jones said Postmaster had sold more than 1,000 cases, containing 48 200-milliliter bottles, or around $500,000 worth.
He said there will be four flavors of vodkas, each associated with a certain profession: police officers, firefighters, health care workers and other first responders. Part of the proceeds from the sales of each vodka will go to support the profession that vodka is associated with, Jones said.
Butler Creek Distilling in Eureka Springs is rolling out an applejack brandy this fall, Greg Schneider said. He and his wife, Vicki, own the business and are its only employees. They plan to produce a new Caribbean-style rum, then blend it with a Tennessee whiskey to make another new product.
Butler Creek specializes in small batches and is attached to the couple’s winery, Railway Winery. The distillery is four stills in a 6-by-30-foot area, and they produce enough liquor to fill one 15-gallon barrel, Schneider said.
Butler Creek started producing earlier this year and has produced 120 cases so far, he said. Each case contains a dozen 375-milliliter or 750-milliliter bottles.
Keith Atkinson of Hot Springs Distilling LLC in Hot Springs had been planning to open his distillery in March. He and his son, Scott, own the business. The pandemic delayed their planned opening to Oct. 1.
Atkinson’s plan is to sell bottles on-site first and provide tastings and then do tours and offer cocktails after a month or so. He also hopes to employ 10 people within a few years.
Crystal Ridge is also new to the scene. The 17,000-SF distillery held a grand opening on March 12, according its owners, the Bradleys. But it started hosting events in September and they opened the attached bar-restaurant in December. The distillery has hosted small, private events since the pandemic struck. The retail store and tasting room are open, and tours are being offered. But the bar-restaurant hasn’t and won’t reopen until the economy is more stable, the owners said.
The pandemic also brought Carol and Dirck Donson’s Falling Rock LLC in Huntsville (Madison County) to a standstill, Carol Donson said. It “hadn’t gotten started real big” but was ready to sell liquors to restaurants, she said. Restaurants have been struggling, first from a state ban on dine-in service and now from new COVID-19 restrictions.
The Donsons started making liquors a year ago. Those are sold in six stores in northwest Arkansas, and the distillery made about 2,000 750-milliliter bottles in 2019, Donson said.