Rock Town Distillery takes pride in handmade craft
By Richard Davis
TFW Staff Writer
Phil Brandon was impressed with the craftsmanship that went into the decor at the 21st Amendment bar in Fayetteville.
“The woodwork here is amazing,” Brandon said.
And Brandon is a man with a keen interest in craftsmanship, appearing at the Dickson Street locale Friday, Oct. 8, to offer tastes of the vodka, gin and bourbon brewed at his Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock.
“It’s the first distillery in Arkansas since Prohibition,” Brandon said, noting he couldn’t find any definitive record of a distillery in the state even before the days of the 18th Amendment. “It’s kind of fun to be the first.”
The Rock Town Distillery’s noble experiment began in the wake of Verizon purchasing Alltel, the place where Brandon worked.
“It wasn’t something that I’d pursued since a small child or anything like that,” Brandon said. “I was working at Alltel. Verizon had acquired Alltel, and I knew that my job was about to change, one way or the other — and you know probably more of a layoff than anything else.
“So I started looking at other things and came across this idea of a craft distillery. They’re popping up in other cities throughout the country, and I was like, well there’s not one in Arkansas. Why not, you know? We’re right here next to Kentucky and Tennessee, two of the largest spirit produces in the world really. You’ve got Jack Daniels in Tennessee and all the bourbon makers in Kentucky. Why not something in Arkansas?”
The distillery’s crafts are now appearing in more than 100 liquor stores and 40 bars and restaurants statewide. And craft is a key term what Brandon is doing.
“What’s new about what I’m doing for Arkansas is that it is a handmade spirit,” Brandon said. “You buy 20 vodkas and a lot of people can’t tell the difference. My vodka has the character of the wheat that comes through that makes it unique.
“We’re craftsmen and not a big factory with an automated assembly line or anything. We’re turning knobs by hand. We’re watching thermometers. We’re using our wits and our senses. We’re tasting it as it comes off the still, try to judge whether it’s tasting right or not.”
By we, Brandon refers to himself, his wife, Diana, and only two other employees who serve as the entire workforce for Rock Town.
“We like to bring in friends and other people to help us bottle,” Brandon said. “We call them bottling parties.
“One of the things about our bottle is we hand sign every bottle. So we put a batch number, a bottle number and a name. We let people come in and help us, and they get to sign bottles as they go out the door, so they can go out to a bar or restaurant and say ‘Hey, that’s my bottle on the shelf. I did that.’”
This process has Rock Town shipping out somewhere between 50 to 70 cases of spirits every two weeks, he said.
“Our first batch was July 13. We fired up the still, and our first batch was bourbon,” Brandon said. “Then we started making vodka and gin.
“We kind of do that on a monthly basis. We make bourbon, we make vodka, we make gin. We make bourbon, we make vodka, we make gin.”
The Rock Town gin sampled Friday night was a treat. The Batch 1 version was truly unique, offering a peppery, almost smoky taste — a higher concentration of coriander than other gins — while remaining smooth and clean. The Batch 2 gin — which has been getting high marks from aficionados, Brandon said — featured more of a traditional juniper flavor while still retaining a unique and pleasing character.
“In the gin, we use seven organic botanicals, and we vapor infuse the gin to give it the juniper flavor that makes it distinctly gin,” Brandon said. “It’s a different flavor profile than you can get anywhere else, but that’s what we want to be — we want to be different.”
Different and pointedly Arkansan. The white oak barrels the distillery uses come from a fourth-generation company in Hot Springs. The grains used by Rock Town are all grown in Arkansas.
“The wheat we use is softbread winter wheat that’s farmed in southeast Arkansas. The corn we use is also Arkansas corn,” Brandon said. “For our bourbon we use corn and wheat, and for our vodka and gin, it’s all wheat.
“It’s similar to the old days when distilleries were all just farm distilleries and they distilled what they had left over at the end of the year. If they had grains they hadn’t sold, they would distill them and that way they could have something to drink all winter long.”
Brandon’s spirits are available at several liquor stores in Fayetteville and Springdale. For a list of the locations, visit drinkbrandons.com.