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Not Your Dad’s Gin: Beehive Distilling

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Recently, I was chatting with a friend who’s a gin connoisseur and mentioned Beehive Distilling, and that they were making top-level spirits in Salt Lake City, Utah. He laughed and said, “Seriously? Utah?” Those of us who live outside of Utah tend to have the assumption that the state is too conservative to allow people to start a business making booze. When three creative guys from the advertising and photography worlds began tossing around the idea of starting their own distillery, they knew they had giant obstacles to overcome—most notably, Utah’s ultra-conservative licensing process. With a bit of time, thoughtful research and recent legislation, Matt Aller, Chris Barlow and Eric Ostling figured out that they could actually open a distillery. While state and federal application forms were being processed and mulled over, the team of three went full-throttle with planning—with Barlow delving deep into the distilling processes by attending workshops and seminars and visiting other distilleries to see how they operated. Finally, when the licensing was approved, Beehive Distilling became the first gin distillery in Utah since 1873! I had a chance to chat with the three founders about the world of Beehive Distilling.

First of all, when people hear Salt Lake City, they don’t associate alcohol with Salt Lake City. {Erik Ostling}: Salt Lake City has always had a cool underground movement, but in a lot of ways it has been a well-kept local secret. We’re only 40 minutes from seven major ski resorts, four hours from Moab, we have a fairly low cost of living, an expanding commuter rail system, and an integrated system of bike trails in downtown and the surrounding foothills. In the past 10 years a really strong local scene has emerged, with amazing restaurants, thriving farmers’ markets, breweries, craft bars and, of course, distilleries!

I remember gin when I was a kid. My mom used to splurge on a big green bottle of Tanqueray. Gin is often associated with Baby Boomers. {Ostling}: Yeah, we hear bad gin-drinking memories all the time…. All I can say is that things have changed. We see gin as a re-emerging spirit. It’s always been around, but vodka kicked its ass in the 1940s when ad campaigns played the “no taste, no smell” card. The craft cocktail movement, with its emphasis on quality ingredients and well-made drinks has helped people re-discover gin. Gin brings flavor to the table when you are mixing cocktails, and a good gin should still taste great—just neat or on the rocks. I think people are realizing that quality gins are every bit as complex as a good bourbon or Scotch.

We’ve tasted many small batches from various distilleries across the country and many are too botanical for our taste. How do you find the right balance all the time? And are you guys constantly experimenting? If so, what can we expect? {Ostling}: I think some distillers see gin as an after-thought, placing their focus on whiskys or other spirits. For us, gin is the only spirit we are producing. With that in mind, finding our balance of botanicals wasn’t easy. Chris [Barlow] established a starting point and then we probably went through 25-plus different combinations until we got to the right place. It was a lot of tasting and then varying the amounts of each ingredient until we had something that we all agreed on. It was really important to all of us that our gin would work in a simple martini, but also complement more complex cocktails. We do have another gin that we’ve been working on, but we are still working out the final flavor profile. Experimentation takes quite a lot of time on the still, and we are pretty busy both filling barrels for Barrel Reserve and bottling Jack Rabbit.

For someone who has never tasted your gin, whether the Jack Rabbit or Barrel Reserve, describe the tastes for each. {Ostling}: With Jack Rabbit the juniper is quite forward, but it’s not overbearingly piney. It moves towards pepper and soft sage in the middle, with rose and citrus on the finish. The mouthfeel is slightly viscous, and some people comment that it has a subtle sweetness under the spice. Barrel Reserve takes the Jack Rabbit baseline and mellows it, adding in a big vanilla nose with hints of warm spices and oak. The flavor of the charred wine barrels really comes through and creates a completely unique flavor.

What’s the process for making gin, and what goes in to making both the Jack Rabbit and Barrel Reserve? {Chris Barlow}: Jack Rabbit starts with a grain-neutral spirit to which we add our fresh botanicals: Albanian juniper, orrisroot, grains of paradise and coriander. These we cold-steep for a few hours before redistilling the spirit. During distillation, fresh sage, rose petals and lemon zest are added to our gin basket so that as the still is running the alcohol vapor passes through and extracts out the flavor and aromas of these botanicals. Our aged gin, Barrel Reserve, goes through a similar distillation process, but is then put into hand-charred French oak barrels where it rests for about eight months.

Tell us about the barrels you use for the Barrel Reserve. {Barlow}: The barrels we get are freshly dumped white wine barrels, usually chardonnay. Since they are wine barrels they have previously only been lightly toasted. We want a heavy char so that we can pull the vanilla, honey and other rich flavors out of the wood. To get this, we pull the heads off the barrels and, using a torch, set fire to the inside. After they have been thoroughly charred, we replace the heads, swell the barrels with water, check for leaks and then fill with gin.

Based on our first bottle of Jack Rabbit, we find it hard to stray from just Jack Rabbit on the rocks (or just a big cube) and nothing more. If we do stray, what do you suggest adding to the gin? {Matt Aller}: We all like Jack Rabbit straight up as well. But if you want to stray just a bit try it with a twist of lime. A little further from the truth would be a martini. And if you’ve got some bar skills make yourself a Negroni.

Three to four fingers of Jack Rabbit in a glass with one big, square ice cube. We prefer the Barrel Reserve in a small glass at room temperature.

Don’t put your bottle of gin in the freezer. It just kills the aromatics and flavor.

How many bottles do you guys produce a month? {Barlow}: How many do you want to buy? Just kidding, well kind of. We can produce upwards of 6,000 bottles per month. While this number might sound like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what major producers do. They will do these numbers in a day. We are very hands-on—one bottle at a time.

The bottle is cool, as is the label and general branding. What was the process for choosing a bottle shape and label? {Aller}: One of Beehive’s partners is a graphic designer so the opportunity to pick a bottle and design a label for your own brand is really a dream job. Many concepts were tossed around but the one we’re using seems to capture the spirit of the desert and the feel of a handcrafted, small-batch product.

Scenario: the world is going to explode tomorrow and you have a bottle of Jack Rabbit in your bomb shelter. What cocktail will you make, what food will you pair with it and, as important, what album will you play when shit hits the fan? {Aller}: Let’s have a perfectly crafted martini, a large platter of charcuterie and listen to Neil Young singing “Tonight’s the Night.” Or let Elliott Smith sing us into a drunken coma. Or listen to “The End Of The World As We Know It” by REM up loud and on repeat.

Chris Barlow {left} is a photographer-by-trade, but woodworking is what satisfies his creative needs. After spending time in the corporate world, he felt he owed it to himself and his family to do something more rewarding; being Beehive’s Lead Distiller definitely fills the bill.

Matt Aller {center} has been in the advertising world for nearly three decades, co-founding a successful branding agency along the way. A Utah native, he’s an avid supporter of all things local—whether it be exploring Salt Lake City’s farmer’s market or hiking along the Wasatch Front.

Erik Ostling {right} originally moved to Utah from Alaska to ski and go to school (in that order) and at some point figured out he liked taking pictures. When not at the distillery or his downtown photography studio, he can be found skiing Little Cottonwood Canyon in the winter, and mountain biking with Barlow in Aller.