For several years, Utah distillers have produced award-winning whiskey, vodka and an herbal liqueur.
Now, the state can stir gin into the mix.
Jack Rabbit Gin, produced by the 6-month-old Beehive Distilling in Salt Lake City, is believed to be the state’s first legally made gin in more than a century.
While whiskey and vodka are the most popular spirits in the liquor cabinet, gin has a storied history and “a cult following,” says Chris Barlow, Beehive’s distiller.
It is the signature spirit in martinis, gimlets and Tom Collinses, and it has been romanticized by many authors: Tennessee Williams frequently enjoyed a Ramos Gin Fizz, F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned the Gin Rickey in “The Great Gatsby” and Ian Fleming’s iconic character, James Bond, drinks a Vesper Martini, with gin and vodka.
Barlow and co-owners Matt Aller and Erik Ostling are creative types, too. They worked in advertising, design and photography — and shared a passion for a good cocktail — before deciding to launch their gin business, one of three new distilleries to receive licenses in Utah in the past six months.
Jack Rabbit Gin is made in small batches — about 28 gallons each — using a corn-based ethanol steeped with juniper berries, coriander seeds, grains of paradise (a spice in the ginger family) and oris (iris) root. Barlow also adds sage, lemon peel and rose petals during the distilling process to lend a unique character to the Utah spirit.
Experimenting with a limitless mix of herbs and spices is what attracted the trio of longtime friends to the business. “There’s a lot of creativity with gin,” Barlow said.
No two premium gins are alike. The famed Hendrick’s Gin from Scotland is infused with rose and cucumber; Aviation American Gin has lavender, cardamom and sarsaparilla; and Bombay Sapphire is steeped with almonds and liquorice.
Growing industry • Besides Beehive, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) recently issued distilling licenses to two new vodka makers: Sugar House Distillery in South Salt Lake and Elevation Distilling in Midvale.
That means the number of distilleries in Utah has doubled in less than a year. Before 2014, Ogden’s Own had one permit and High West Distillery had two — in Salt Lake City and Park City.
The Utah growth is part of a national trend, said Frank Coleman, the senior vice president with the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington, D.C.
“Across the country, demand for American spirits is strong,” he said. “In 2000, there were a couple dozen artisan or craft distillers in the U.S. Today, there are well over 500 and many more licenses in the pipeline.”
Several factors are driving the numbers — namely modernization of Prohibition-era laws and consumer demand.
“Consumers are interested in super-premium products; that’s where we see the strongest growth,” Coleman said. “It’s also driven by the interest in local products.”
Utah laws changed about five years go in a way that benefitted distilleries, said David Perkins, who launched High West, Utah’s first modern-day distillery, in 2007.
Distilleries were allowed to sell their products on site, not just at state-owned liquor stores.
“That was a big deal,” he said.
The state also gives small liquor producers an exemption on the mark-up price, making the local products more affordable for consumers. High West no longer qualifies for the exemption, said Perkins. “But for a small guy it mattered a lot. Not every state has that.”
Perkins said he wonders if the Utah distilling scene can continue to grow at its recent pace, simply because of start-up costs.
“It’s not an easy business and more expensive than setting up a brewery or winery,” he said. “But there’s plenty of room for more. Whenever there is more choice, it’s always a good thing for consumers.”
More Utah vodka • Sugar House Distillery owner and founder James Fowler knows how difficult setting up a distillery in Utah can be. It has taken him two years to find a building and get all the local, state and federal permits. But within the next few weeks — maybe days — Sugar House Vodka should be available in a select number of Utah liquor stores. It has been available several weeks at the distillery, 2212 S. West Temple.
“I won a home-brewing contest and have always toyed with the idea of brewing, but I knew I didn’t want to make beer on a large scale,” said Fowler, a Utah native. After visiting distilleries around the country and taking classes, he realized the spirit business “was unique and different” enough to satisfy his thirst.
He hired Dan Feldman, who worked as a distiller in Japan and brewed beer in North Carolina, to be the head distiller. Feldman is making Sugar House vodka from scratch, distilling local wheat and corn in a 100-gallon hybrid still — which also can make whiskey and gin. The distillery’s honey whiskey already is aging in new American oak barrels and should be available around the holidays, said Fowler.
Several Utah restaurants and bars have embraced the locally made spirits.
Fowler said Sugar House Vodka is being served at the Cottonwood Country Club, the Dodo and the Tap Room.
Likewise, the bartenders at the State Room and Takashi, a sushi restaurant in Salt Lake City, have embraced Jack Rabbit Gin.
“We love the fact that it’s local,” said Takashi general manager Rich Romney. “But it’s also very botanical and has its own character.”
The restaurant recently added two new gin cocktails to the menu using Jack Rabbit: the Takashi Martini, made with dry vermouth, a French herbal liqueur and orange bitters; and the Hachi Hive, with elderflower liqueur, lemon yuzi and a honey-sage syrup.
“It’s been fun to play with the Beehive gin and see what kind of different flavors we can tease out of it,” Romney said.
5 Utah spirit makers
Utah has distilleries that make whiskey, vodka, gin and herbal liqueurs. Here is where to find these spirits:
Beehive Distilling • Makers of Jack Rabbit Gin, $27.99 for a 750-ml bottle. Available in most Utah liquor and wine stores. A grand opening party is Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. at the State Room, 638 S. State, Salt Lake City. Gin cocktails and a performance by Charles Ellsworth & The Blue Bourbon Orchestra. Tickets available at the stateroom.com
Elevation Distilling • Makers of Salt City Vodka. Coming soon.
High West Distillery • Makers of rye whiskey and vodka. Prices vary. Available in liquor and wine stores and the distillery, open daily, at 703 Park Ave, Park City; 435-649-8300.
Ogden’s Own • Makers of Five Wives Vodka and Underground Herbal Spirit. Prices vary. Available in liquor and wine stores and the distillery, 3075 Grant Ave, Ogden, 801-458-1995. Open Monday-Friday, noon to 5 p.m.
Sugar House Distillery • Makers of Sugar House Vodka, $19.99 for a 750-ml bottle. Available at the distillery, 2212 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City; 801-726-0403. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Also available soon in select Utah liquor stores.
Online liquor finder • The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a product locator on its website: alcbev.state.ut.us. Click on the bottle in the lower right-hand corner of the home page to find what store carries the product you want.
Vida tequila wins honor
Vida Tequila, an ultra-premium brand of tequila whose owners live in Utah, was recently named one of the Top 50 Spirits of 2013 by Wine Enthusiast.
The magazine editors gave Vida’s pale gold reposado a score of 94, of a possible 100, calling it “sweet, smooth and honeyed with just the right amount of jalapeño tingle and a hint of creamy citrus on the exit.”
The Vida brand, owned by Lisa and John Barlow of Draper, also makes a Blanco and Anejo tequila. All three styles are made with 100 percent blue agave grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco and are available in Utah liquor stores.