GOLD MEDAL BOURBON: Dennis Morgan and Julie Cumberland at work for Rock Town Distillery, known for its bourbons and whiskeys. Brian Chilson

Much has been written about Arkansas-made beer. We know all the brewers, and we understand the basic process of making ales and lagers. The explosive growth of the state’s beer industry has been well documented, and its people are constantly celebrated. 

Yet, distilled spirits made in Arkansas are still a mystery to most. The equipment is exotic, and it often takes an extraordinary amount of time (and patience) to reap any of the reward. Plus, we haven’t come to know the distillers like we have our brewers. The personalities behind the stills continue to lurk in the shadows.  

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The low-profile nature of Arkansas distilleries persists despite what the director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, Doralee Chandler, calls steady growth in state-produced spirits.

“Distilling has not had the boom that brewing has had over the past 15 years; however, there has still been steady growth,” she said. 

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The growth of craft spirits across the broader U.S. market is undeniable. For 2019 — the last year for which official statistics are available — the American Craft Spirits Association reported annual volume growth of 24% over the previous year. Craft distillers reached $6.1 million in sales in 2019 for a 6.9% share of the total craft spirits market. 

Craft distilleries are defined as those producing less than 750,000 proof gallons (a measure of ethyl alcohol in a given volume of liquid, used to determine taxes) and not controlled by a large supplier. They are akin to your local craft brewery — small and independent. 

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In Arkansas, there were only four licensed distilleries in 2016. Today there are 14 active liquor manufacturing licenses, with one more pending approval. 

However, not all of the active licenses are truly “active.” 

Brick Oven Pizza Co. in Harrison has a license and a still, but hasn’t done much with it other than make hand sanitizer during the early days of COVID-19. Gassville’s White River Distillery, in operation since 2012, suffered a major setback when founder Gary Taylor died on Oct. 8. Taylor’s son Jon said production has ceased and the tasting room is closed, and he’s not sure what the next step for the distillery will be. Three others are incorporated and are licensed to manufacture liquor by the state, but aren’t showing any activity at this time. 

Chandler said the distilling industry is heavily regulated and there are strict guidelines in place for manufacturers. Additionally, equipment and facilities are expensive, and it costs a lot of money to properly market the product. Sales of spirits rely heavily on brand recognition by consumers.  

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There is good news, however. Just as with craft beer, Arkansas lawmakers have removed some of the barriers for entry, making it easier than ever to fire up a new still.  

“For example, Act 706 of 2021 allows distillers to wholesale their own products,” Chandler said. “This provision allows distillers to distribute their products directly to retailers, which, theoretically, can help a distiller’s bottom line.”

This mirrors the 2003 Arkansas Native Brewery Act, which allowed state breweries to distribute directly to retailers, effectively cutting out the middleman and correcting the fatal flaw of the notorious three-tier system of distribution, under which distributors could de-prioritize small producers to benefit the corporate giants (aka, the distributors’ partners).  

“In addition, the statute which authorizes distilling allows distillers to sell their products for on-premises consumption any day of the week,” Chandler said. “This allows distilleries to offer samples to patrons and allows distilleries to serve as a local attraction. Also, the distillers can sell their products for off-premises consumption any day of the week.” 

In other words, distilleries can have tasting rooms, just like breweries. And just like beermakers, distillers can sell packaged product out the door, too. 

Even with these regulatory improvements, the process of distillation is itself a barrier to entry. Home distilling equipment is hard to come by and, technically, illegal. There aren’t many people who have hands-on experience making spirits. On the other hand, we all probably know people who have brewed beer on their kitchen stovetops, and most of today’s commercial brewers started out as kitchen- or garage-based hobbyists. 

Commercial distilling equipment comes at incredible cost and can be dangerous to operate. An explosion at Old Ed Ward’s Distillery in Newport in 2011 sent two employees to the hospital with steam burns (they eventually recovered).

There are four parts to a basic whiskey still — the pot, swan neck, lyne arm and condenser. These parts work together to transform an already-fermented brew into something bigger and more refined than its original form. Different types of stills are used to produce various spirits, and individual designs can look dramatically different from one another.  

Another type of still popular with craft distillers is a column still. It utilizes a series of internal plates to continuously condense the alcoholic vapor, creating a spirit of up to 95% proof (pot stills generally finish in the 60-70% range). Column stills are also cool to look at, resembling a giant wind instrument, complete with tone holes. 

The process of distilling starts by making a mash. Hot water is added to grain (corn, wheat, barley, etc.) to convert starch into sugar. The resulting liquid — known as “wort” in the beer world — is sent to a fermenter, where yeast is added to create a fermented product known as the “wash.” 

After fermentation is complete, the wash is sent to the still where it is heated in the pot. Because alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, alcohol can be separated from the wash in an efficient manner. As it rises, this alcoholic vapor travels through the swan neck and lyne arm before arriving in the condenser, where it cools and turns back into liquid form. From there it is collected. Distillers often send the first-pass distillate back through the process to create double- and triple-distilled products. This further refines the spirit. What results is a raw form of whiskey, which can be sold immediately as moonshine or further aged in wood casks and presented as whiskey or bourbon. 

The process is essentially the same for other distilled products such as vodka, gin, rum, etc. The ingredients may vary, and the equipment might be set up differently, but it all boils down to creating a fermented “beer” and then separating out the alcohol through vapor distillation. 

That’s how they do it at Arkansas distilleries, too. 

Some of our distilleries are fairly well known, while others have barely garnered a mention. Their products range from whiskey, gin and vodka to pre-mixed cocktails and moonshine (which typically gets the Mason jar treatment). Not counted among them is the Pernod Ricard plant in Fort Smith, where the company bottles big-brand spirits produced in other states. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the nine active distilleries in the state:

Rock Town Distillery (1201 Main Street, Little Rock) is probably the most talked about distillery in Arkansas. It was founded by Phil Brandon in 2010 and is said to be the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. It’s a boast that is technically true given the order in which federal permits were obtained, although Old Ed Ward’s Distillery in Newport opened that same year. Rock Town won a Double Gold medal for its Single Barrel Bourbon at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Although it makes other types of spirits, the distillery is most celebrated for its lineup of whiskeys and bourbons.  

Fox Trail Distillery (2121 S. Bellview Road, Rogers) has found its niche in booming Northwest Arkansas. It produces small-batch vodka made from yellow corn, gin laced with Ozark botanicals, and a cold brew coffee liqueur called Oak & Bean. Open to the public since April 2019, Fox Trail’s on-premises focus is custom cocktail recipes and mixology expertise. Its location in Pinnacle Hills is a big plus, with tons of food and entertainment options nearby. 

Postmaster Spirits (200 Hazel Street, Newport) is located in the former Newport post office, a building that dates back to 1915. It just oozes with untold history and architectural grandeur. There was even talk a few years ago that the place is haunted. Owner Ross Jones originally got into distilling when he and partner Phillip Finch bought Old Ed Ward’s distillery and the associated license and subsequently moved the operation to its current location. Postmaster Spirits raised a few eyebrows when it unveiled an orange-flavored vodka named Trump Tonic. There’s also a peach-flavored version called Mmm Peach.  

Crystal Ridge Distillery (455 Broadway Street, Hot Springs) held its grand opening in March 2020. Owner, president and CEO Danny Bradley earned a Ph.D. in poultry science and worked in poultry nutrition before opening the distillery with his wife, Mary, and son Asher. Together they make moonshine, bourbon, whiskey and vodka. The wood-aged product is sourced from other distilleries and sold under the Crystal Ridge label. The non-aged product is made in-house. Bradley said the distillery hangs its hat on its moonshine. The old-timey aesthetic in the public tasting room makes Crystal Ridge an interesting side excursion when strolling Central Avenue. 

Delta Dirt Distillery (430 Cherry Street, Helena) has received a lot of positive press since opening earlier this year. Owners Harvey and Donna Williams are the backbone of the operation. Their son Thomas — who was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Master Distiller” — is in charge of production. The Williams family has lived in Phillips County for four generations, and they take pride in being a part of downtown Helena. Delta Dirt makes a sweet potato and corn-based vodka referred to as Sweet Blend. Soon they’ll release Tall Cotton Gin and Delta Blues Bourbon. 

Hot Springs Distilling (121 Ross Street, Hot Springs) is a small operation that makes Bear Clap Bourbon, Falls Creek White Whiskey and Spa City Vodka. Keith Atkinson and his son Scott were inspired by a trip to Scotland back in 2013. The small-batch whiskeys they tasted there led them to more distillery visits back home in the U.S. Hot Springs Distilling was born in 2018, and their small tasting room opened in June of this year. 

Falling Rock (27377 Highway 74, Huntsville) is owned and operated by Carol and Dick Donson. They make whiskey, vodka, red rum and gin. Most notably, they partner with the RG Macon & Carson brand (named after a turn-of-the-20th century apple distillery located in Bentonville) to produce an apple brandy under the same name. 

Butler Creek Distilling (4937 Highway 187, Eureka Springs) has been putting whiskey into barrels since December 2019. The small distillery bottles and sells a variety of moonshine products. Owners Greg and Vicki Schneider have spent the past 10 years operating Railway Winery at “that weird little place out by Beaver.” They decided to diversify into spirits to mitigate the constant risk of floods and crop loss in their vineyard.  

Core Brewing & Distilling Co. (2470 N. Lowell Road, Springdale) has been brewing beer in Northwest Arkansas since 2010. The emphasis has shifted to other beverages over the past couple of years. Hard seltzers now dominate production output, and earlier this year the brewery introduced a lineup of ready-to-drink cocktails known as 25th State Craft Cocktails. Each of the three received a medal at this year’s American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits Awards.