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By Andrea Pyenson / Photos by Michael Piazza

“When we find something we like, we think, can we make this?” says Jeremy Gotsch, referring to his partners and the thinking behind their new business, Damnation Alley Distillery. Based in Belmont, the small-batch producer of vodka and whiskey uses only ingredients grown in Massachusetts. “We came at this from the angle that we grow a lot of food for ourselves; that we make a lot of food-based things, or even non-food-based things,” Jeremy continues. Before opening in October 2013, the five partners had successfully made their own mozzarella cheese, aged and flavored cheddars, ricotta, soap, laundry detergent, and beer. Spirits were the logical next step, they reasoned.

The decision to start Damnation Alley was far from impulsive. Alex Thurston, one of the distillery owners, had been home-brewing beer for a decade. Five years ago, he started thinking about distilling, his interest deep enough that he travelled to Michigan to take a class taught by a Michigan State University professor. When he returned home, he raised the idea of starting a distillery with his wife, Emma. They shared the notion with Jessica Gotsch, who is Emma’s sister, and her husband, Jeremy; and Alison DeWolfe, who has worked with Emma and Jessica at Newbury Comics for more than a decade. The five are now partners in the business.

In November 2011, a 1,500-square-foot, former retail space on a commercial block in a largely residential area became available. That it is a stone’s throw from the two-family house that the Thurstons and the Gotsches share (you can see their oak tree from the plate-glass windows in front) could have been fate or just a happy coincidence. The partners signed the lease within two weeks of seeing the property. And then the fun really began.

Federal and state regulators require that aspiring distillers have their location set and equipment in place before they will grant the licenses necessary for operation. Over the next 14 months, the Thurstons, Gotsches, and DeWolfe renovated their new space and purchased equipment, selecting a modular system that gives them the flexibility to increase their production capacity without making huge investments. But nobody gave up their day job. Jeremy Gotsch is in charge of ticketing and other front-line systems at the Museum of Fine Arts; Alex Thurston is a metallurgist; and the women are still at Newbury Comics, where they met.

The five also spent a year traveling the Commonwealth in search of the grains that would be the base of their spirits. Damnation Alley vodka and whiskey is made from corn grown at Mainstone Farm in Wayland, wheat and rye from Four Star Farms in Northfield, and barley from Valley Malt in Hadley. Valley Malt also malts the other grains, which is necessary for brewing them into beer or, ultimately, spirits. To determine whether the farm and its grain were a good fit, Jeremy explains, “We looked at their growing practices, the moisture content of the grain… [The farmers] can change various characteristics, like protein content, of a grain, based on how they’re growing it.” So far, the distillers have not asked any of its famer-suppliers for custom grains but Jeremy says he expects that they will.

The majority of the building, 970 square feet in the back, is devoted to brewing and distilling. About 200 square feet in front is retail space. The partners take turns working at the distillery after they leave their day jobs. There are usually three or four people on-site, five days—or nights—a week. Retail hours are Wednesday through Sunday. To call the operation small-batch is no exaggeration. Damnation Alley produces 90 bottles of alcohol per week, sold only in the retail space. The partners have been in discussion with some area restaurants about carrying their spirits, but as of press time no arrangements had been finalized.

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On a Saturday morning in late November, the distilling room has a slight popcorn smell, with sour overtones. The team is making its House Whiskey, a blend of corn, wheat, rye, and barley. One side of the room houses two 55-gallon one-barrel systems, where Alex begins the brewing process. While most of the business functions are shared among the partners, Alex refers to this area as “my happy place,” and he doesn’t share. Which seems more than ok with everybody else. He mills the grains, then mixes them with water and boils them to convert the starches to sugar. He pumps the 35-gallon mixture, which is now a “mash,” and boils it again to sterilize it. Now 31 gallons, it is what he calls “an almost-beer.” He cools the liquid to near room temperature in pre-sterilized tubs for four to five hours, then adds brewer’s yeast so it can ferment. Alex says he experimented with different yeasts but found that the brewer’s yeast yields “a clean fermentation that lets the character of the grain come out.” The liquid ferments for nine to 12 days in a fermentation room before being brought back for distilling.

At this point, Alex is ready to share, so one of the other partners transfers the liquid into the three 26-gallon stills. They run each vodka and whiskey through the stills twice. At that point, they bottle the spirit directly, flavor it or transfer it to barrels to age.

Damnation Alley currently has a basic product line of three white whiskeys and three vodkas: Barley Whiskey, which Jeremy describes as similar to single-malt, but without the barreling; Wheat Whiskey; House Whiskey; Nick the Sipper Vodka, a highly filtered vodka for cocktails in which people want to be able to taste the mixing ingredients; Sipping Vodka, meant for just that; and the current flavored vodka, One Night in Bangkok, with sweet chili peppers from the Gotsch-Thurston garden, honey from Carlisle, and Wellfleet Sea Salt, harvested from water in Wellfleet Bay. “It was quite a find being able to locally source salt,” Jeremy notes. The Sipping Vodka is the top seller, with Barley Whiskey close behind it.

In order to develop the caramel color most people associate with whiskey, it has to be aged in oak barrels. In December the company introduced its first aged whiskey (6 months) for the holiday season, made up of 86% malted barley and 14% Narragansett White heirloom corn.

They plan to release another every month, in limited quantities. They delivered a 3-month-old House Whiskey in January, and plan to release a 6-month-old Rye in February, a 6-month-old Single Malt in March, and a 6- month-old Bourbon in April. All are aged in five-gallon barrels. “The smaller barrel means the spirit is in contact with a greater amount of the surface area of the barrel,” Alison explains. “[This means] we are able to achieve both color and the flavor profile we want.”

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Damnation Alley has been using a lot of its owners’ produce to flavor its vodkas. The Thurstons and Gotsches have a backyard garden and hoop house—Alison, who lives in Newton, insists, “It’s not a garden. It’s an urban farm.”—where they grow herbs, chili peppers, tomatoes, bell peppers, gooseberries, spinach, kale, and other items. They also have six chickens whose eggs, so far, have not been used to flavor any Damnation Alley products.

If Alex is king of the brewing area, Jeremy is the flavormeister. In the middle of the distilling room, between the barrels and the stills, sit large glass jars filled with colored liquid. One holds gooseberries and vodka. In another, with a definite green tint, rosemary is steeping in vodka. Jeremy’s ideas for flavors are limited only by the available produce. At a pre-opening party, he made pizza vodka, using tomato, pepper, garlic, oregano, and basil from his garden, “As a joke,” he says, “But everybody said I have to make it for real.” The partners served it as shooters with mozzarella balls. Jeremy is also planning a Bloody Mary version of vodka. And he’s growing strawberries, cilantro, and chives, all of which he’s planning to infuse, particularly the chive flowers. From other farms, he is planning to get peaches, rose hips, and honey; and he is looking for sumac, both for its color and flavor. To flavor whiskey, Jeremy is thinking of using the ginger, chiles, rhubarb, and mint that he and his housemates grow. Mint julep in a bottle, anyone?

Then there are the items the distiller-farmers have neither been able to find nor grow that they are trying to get their hands on. “We spent a year driving around trying to find grains. Now we’re driving around looking in people’s yards—and knocking on doors,” Jeremy laughs. “Alison may have a line on juniper.”

Looking into the future, at some “really crazy stuff,” Jeremy talks of distilling using potatoes, carrots, and sugar beets. “We’d be extracting the sugars and starches from actual vegetables instead of from grains,” he says. “We’d be making the alcohol from those things rather than flavoring.” He’d also like to try to replicate a yogurt-flavored liqueur that he and his wife had in Amsterdam.

Just after Thanksgiving, Jeremy and Jessica had their first child, a daughter. The fourth member of the second generation in the Gotsch-Thurston household, her name is Saffron. Could be another Damnation Alley flavor in the offing…

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Damnation Alley Distillery 7 Brighton Street, Belmont damnationalleydistillery.com

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Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com, and oneforthetable.com. She is co-author, with Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, of Wicked Good Barbecue, and Wicked Good Burgers. Their third book, Grill to Perfection, will be published in the spring. Andrea can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.