There’s a somewhat logical progression to starting a food business. Let’s say you particularly enjoy baking. Flour dust settles in a fine layer over every corner of the kitchen as you try out recipe after recipe. Your friends taste all your trials, perhaps gaining a few pounds in the process. Finally you hit on that special mix of fat, sweet, and salt. After inhaling the cookies in delight, your friends and family tell you that you should go into business. And while you know that it takes many more steps to create a successful enterprise, you decide to do just that.
And then there’s this. You’ve never been in the food business. You’ve never made any variety of this particular product. You wheedle family and friends into investing thousands of dollars. You build out an entire industrial production site without ever having turned out even one product sample.
Against most logic, it pays off: you win local fans and a national award only months after selling the first taste.
That’s the convoluted path that cousins Matt Neurnberger and Spencer McMinn took to create Grand Ten Distilling, which opened in South Boston last April.
The genesis of the business came to Neurnberger when he was studying entrepreneurship at Babson University. As his MBA indicates, he wanted to start his own business. He wrote the business plan for a distillery as part of the degree.
“I have a strong passion for spirits, and I saw a hole in the Boston area for craft distillers right in the city,” he explains.
That winter, December 2009, he and his wife took a trip to Paris, where McMinn was completing an industrial chemistry post-doc. Neurnberger broached the idea of a distillery. The two had grown up together drinking cocktails with their families—one of the last things their mutual grandfather asked for before he died was a gin and tonic—but McMinn needed to decide whether he wanted to change his career entirely. He took a few months to mull it over. And then he said yes.
What made it particularly appealing, jokes McMinn, is that “when I was in grad school, there were always those moments when I thought, I’m going to quit and just open a brewery.” And though he’d never created a spirit, as a chemist, he was comfortable with the distillation process. Beer, though, has a major advantage. You can brew it at home, tweak your recipe. But here’s the thing about home distillation, as Neurnberger points out: “It’s a federal offense! It’s moonshine.”
Moonshine. And so McMinn and Neurnberger, as with all craft distillers, had to lease space, find funding, buy equipment, install that equipment, secure the necessary local, state and federal permits—all before determining whether they could cook up something that they both wanted to drink, much less something that would sell.
“We had to leap. There was no half doing it. There’s not even an option for it not to be good,” says Neurnberger.
While their requests wound through permitting offices, the cousins discussed their options. They settled on two definite products for their burgeoning company: rum and gin. Rum, because Boston had been well-known for the city’s rum distilleries before prohibition. And gin was an obvious choice, as not only was it a family favorite, but the definition of gin—spirits, juniper berries, and any assorted other botanicals—leaves plenty of room for creativity. Plus, gin doesn’t have to be aged, so once the distillation is complete, the final product can be bottled and sold.
They started with gin. They bought, they estimate, 30 different bottles to taste. They tried every gin cocktail they could find. They figured out what they liked, what turned them off. They didn’t want the traditional full-blown punch of juniper. They wanted something more complex, subtle, something that could appeal to both gin-lovers and people who say they hate the drink. They wanted something you could sip straight.
Finally, in January 2012, they had amassed all the necessary signatures. They turned their machines on.
And then began a mad recipe-creation rush.
Juniper. Coriander. Anise. Angelica root. Cardamom. They distilled all these botanicals and more, and tasted each distillation separately. They played with different combinations. They wanted local flavor, and added lavender, rose hips, and cranberries to the list. Lavender tasted too flowery—that was dropped. Rose hips left them “with a “vague aspartame Diet Coke flavor,” says McMinn. Crossed off.
Cranberries? Surprisingly, the distillation didn’t taste like cranberry. Instead, the tart garnet beads imparted an almost citric acidity, which, says McMinn, “gives it a great roundness and an interesting mouth-feel—so we stumbled upon a way to make our gin different.”
Over a few months, January through April, they tried out around 50 different gin recipes. They asked for feedback from local mixologists.
Finally, one leapt out at them. For the Wire Works label (Wire Works refers to the building’s history as an iron foundry in the 1800s), a neutral spirit is distilled with juniper berries, coriander, angelica root, cranberries, and “etc.,” their own secret recipe. Then they bottled it and began selling in April.
“I really think we hit it out of the park,” McMinn smiles, no pretense at modesty— and Sam Treadway, bar manager at backbar, agrees. He pours their gin in cocktails such as the Pegu Club. The gin is smooth, herbal, and tart, “really drinkable, good in cocktails,” says Treadway.
Treadway also stocks their Fire Puncher vodka, which preserves the caramel sweetness from chipotle peppers coupled with a hint of smoke and a tingling spice. “I’m excited to see what else they come up with, because now I know their palate.”
There’s more on the way. In the distillery, rum is aging in charred oak barrels. Last spring, a friend of a friend wanted to offload the remains of last season’s apples—about 12,000 of them—and so Neurnberger and McMinn ran all 12,000, one at a time, through a grinder, made hard cider, then separated the pulp from the juice and distilled the cider into applejack brandy. It’s now aging alongside the rum. They’ve also been crafting liqueur, following the French model: one tastes sweetly of almond, while another, with angelica root and cinnamon, recalls winter spice and grown-up root beer.
The gin has already won a “triple gold medal” from the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards. And on August 4, the cousins opened the door to their new distillery-based store, where they’ll sell a variety of products, such as the liqueurs, and offer tours of the operations. In addition to a number of local wine and spirit stores, the gin is stocked at bars including Eastern Standard, the Hawthorne, Deep Ellum, the Biltmore, backbar, and others. McMinn says it’s been easy making contacts and encouraging bar managers to take a sip. “What’s cool about this industry is that everyone seems so happy, that they’re really nice,” he laughs.
The two do everything: tasting, distilling, marketing, running the business, pasting the labels on the bottles (McMinn says he’s too much of a perfectionist to trust label-pasting to friends and family who might want to help), loading the truck, driving it around town. And they never sleep, they joke, especially as both have a young kid at home. They’re one of only two distillers within the city limits so far—the other is Bully Boy in Roxbury. And they hope the city’s roundly supported cocktail renaissance will lead to a local distilling renaissance as well. McMinn points out that the American Distilling Institute, “the voice of craft distilling,” as the organization’s website announces, documents that the number of craft distillers in the United States has skyrocketed, from 52 in 2005 to 234 at the end of 2011. “It’s exploding,” says McMinn. “Which is great. Absolutely great.” For them—and for us.
Grand Ten Distilling 383 Dorchester Avenue, Boston 617.29.0497 grandten.com
Cynthia Graber covers science and agriculture, among other topics, for a variety of magazines and national radio shows. and national radio show. She's spending 2012-13 as a Knight science journalism fellow at MIT. Read more of her work at www.cynthiagraber.com.
The South Boston Cocktail Iteration of the Boston Cocktail from the Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide.
1 part Wire Works American Gin 1 part apple brandy ½ part fresh lemon juice ¼ part grenadine or pomegranate syrup 1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake for 1-2 minutes.
Strain into a glass with ice and serve.
The Lone Tree From the cocktail menu for the old Hotel Touraine, Boston.
1 part Wire Works American Gin 1 part sweet vermouth 1 dash orange bitters strip of orange peel (use a sharp vegetable peeler)
Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake for 1-2 minutes.
Strain into a glass with ice, garnish with the orange peel, and serve.