Local craft distilleries encompass an essence of magic. As soon as you walk in, there’s an aura in the air that something exciting is happening with each and every passing moment. That feeling rises to a whole new level upon entering Boston Harbor Distillery, the city’s newest craft distillery.
The source of the magic is hard to pinpoint. It could be the perfect blend of modern industrialism in the design, or the light that streams through the windows and skylights and bounces off the mixed metal light fixtures, wooden beams, and exposed brick. Maybe it’s the small historical elements that honor the commercial industry of the area. Then of course, there are the relationships—the bond between a team built on genuine mutual respect, blood, sweat, and tears, and an ultimate passion for the industry. And finally, there’s the creativity of the craft spirits, made from heart and soul in this very building.
Earlier this month, Alex and I were lucky to be able to tour the new Boston Harbor Distillery, taste the spirits, and chat with founder and CEO, Rhonda Kallman.
Kallman, a founding partner of Sam Adams’ brewery, Boston Beer Company, knows her craft very very well. Entering the business in 1984 and being at the forefront of the craft beer movement, this next project is both different and extremely exciting for her. And the energy of the craft distilling movement is pumping through her veins. She glows as she welcomes us into her pride and joy, with a genuine eagerness to show off what’s in the works.
As we make our way to the tasting area, Kallman shows off the historical elements of the space, originally at the forefront of entrepreneurial commerce. We admire maps and old sketches paying homage to 19th century companies like Putnam Nail Company, shipbuilders George Lawley & Son, and Seymour’s Ice Cream Company. That entrepreneurial spirit—making a difference and becoming a piece of history, is exactly what Kallman wants for her distillery, as she says of the industry, “we’re right where craft beer was 10, 15, even 20 years ago. This is the future.”
After 30 years in the brewing world, Kallman, always a whiskey drinker, has come full circle, starting from scratch and distilling unique spirits both aged and unaged, incorporating distinct flavors and one-of-a-kind collaborations. As we make our way to the tasting table, I admire the high ceilings and beautifully lit space, fantasizing about how perfect it would be for an event space. Kallman is quick to tell me that they plan to host private events, and have already thrown some industry parties.
Kallman sets out to revolutionize spirits,
“I was in the beer business for three decades, but I don’t know distilling. That’s the beauty of it. I’m not an ex-distiller, so feel like I have carte blanche to redefine the rules. To me, there are no rules, as we are starting from scratch.”
As we head toward the barrels and still, where the magic happens, John Couchot, Master Distiller, joins us. Formerly at Rogue Ales, his extensive background in brewing and distilling blends perfectly with Kallman’s. Observing the witty banter between the two, you’d think they’d been working together for decades, and in some ways they have, joining the industries around the same time and working separately, though toward the same cause—that of the craft movement. “Rhonda comes to me, the legacy of Sam Adams, and I learned how to brew from the owner of Sierra Nevada…I was at Rogue, I worked with Dogfish. We both learned to do what we’re doing from the forefront,” says Couchot, as he and Kallman reminisce and compare the years they started their careers, smiling, “it’s been a long time.”
You’d almost think they’d never discussed this before.
We take a taste directly from the barrel of Couchot’s latest creation, a limited batch collaboration of distilled Sam Adams Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout that for now is called the Spirit of Boston, highlighting the special connection between Boston Harbor Distillery and The Boston Beer Company (more on that soon). “I could just smell this all day long. I think it’s the best spirit I’ve ever made. It’s the most complex, unique, really spectacular, and I am the biggest critic of everything I make. I hate it all,” Couchot says, as we compare taste notes.
As I wonder how he would convey his intentions and these flavors to potential customers, he tells me
“it’s about enjoying it. I’m not going to tell you what to think or how to drink it. It’s a different experience for everyone. For me, this drink is New England Christmas. And I’m not even from here, this is just what I picture the holidays to be.”
The complexities of this collaboration raise plenty of questions, “these are the ‘what the hell is it?’ of spirits. It’s not whiskey because it’s flavored, but it’s not a flavored whiskey…we don’t even know what to call it.” As Kallman said, there really are no rules.
But what about a staple like the distillery’s own Putnam Rye (named for the aforementioned Putnam Nail Company)?
“When I taste the rye I think of these barrels and all the signatures,” he says as we admire the collage of names across the whiskey barrels, “it represents the support of the community. Everyone of those names…family, friends, politicians, an 11 year old boy [his son].” Adds Kallman “a movie star, parents, sisters, loved ones, investors…blood sweat and tears, in short.”
Kallman has truly come full circle. Just as she was at the forefront of craft brewing 30 years ago, today she is at the forefront of craft distilling, and just like back then, her goal is the same: “I was in the beer business for 30 years. Just like I’m doing now, I wanted to do something different. Something the other 3,700 breweries weren’t doing,” (and she is clearly on the right track based on what I saw and tasted).
Currently, there are 20 craft distilleries in the state of Massachusetts, and while there is an air of competition among them, there’s also camaraderie,
“when the tide comes in all the boats rise. Look at Napa and Sonoma. They got together as an industry and became important, the core here is educating people, like we did with beer years ago. People scoffed at dark beer, ‘we don’t drink daaaark beer!’ and the industry thought it was a fad. But it didn’t go away, and it never will.”
And that is what the craft movement is all about—pushing each other to offer something with a point of difference that drinkers will find interesting, something truly great, that will keep them coming back,
“it’s caring about what’s inside the bottle—passion and integrity that goes into every bottle. That’s what craft is.”