Whether you’re starting 2021 with a Dryuary or toasting the New Year until the fetid smell of 2020 has worn off, January’s become a time to get thoughtful about alcohol — what we love, what we hate and what role it plays in our newly pandemic-stricken social lives. It’s also the month when, in 1919, Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition in the state and ushering in a formalized relationship between booze and government. So, in January 2021, the Arkansas Times raises a glass to all things boozy with a series we’re calling Drink/Drank/Drunk: our city’s great cocktails and mocktails, the history of temperance in the state, brews to try before you die, a boozy playlist and more.
If the founding Bradley family believed in omens, Crystal Ridge Distillery of Hot Springs might have been the shortest venture in the history of distilling. For months, they invested time, talent and treasure in the concept, only to see it slammed shut inside of a week.
“We put bottles on the shelf Dec. 31, 2019,” said Asher Bradley, general manager. “Then we had our grand opening March 14, 2020, and March 19th we were shut down [due to COVID-19]. We were officially open for five days.”
“That week when it first happened, I’m not going to lie, I was scared to death,” said Asher’s father, Danny. “I mean, honestly, I can’t imagine starting a business in a harder environment than right now. It’s been an unbelievable grind.”
Things being what they were, few would’ve blamed the family if they’d used inventory for the bender to end all benders, but giving up wasn’t an option. Danny and his wife, Mary, had switched careers to go into the spirits business, as had Asher, who uprooted his family from Russellville to be part of the venture. They weren’t going out without a fight. They put their heads together to come up with a solution to tide them through the new restrictions.
The saving grace wasn’t as sexy as hand-crafted spirits or as trendy as a cocktail, but it worked.
“Our whole lives are here. We were going to lose everything if we didn’t do something,” Danny said. “We took what little capital we had left and we bought the ingredients to make hand sanitizer.
“I said, ‘If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose everything. And, if we do do that, we still might lose everything, but at least there’s hope that we can do something.’ It turned out really good, but initially it was very, very scary, what we were going through.”
Today, the company-saving sanitizer is still produced. It’s stacked in a place of honor by the front door of the distillery, tasting room and bar. It’s not the only reminder of pandemic measures taken — Crystal Ridge’s former restaurant space now sports overstuffed leather chairs and rustic tables as a lounge.
It’s not the struggles of 2020 that take center stage here, but the promise of the future, which rides squarely on the company’s made-in-house moonshine. The unaged spirit comes in 16 flavors counting seasonal selections, from root beer to strawberry to maple bacon. The unflavored Mule Kick and White Mule selections come in 120 proof and 80 proof, respectively.
Historically speaking, moonshining holds a proud place in Garland County history, but the main reason the Bradleys got into making the spirit is less romantic than dashing bootleggers supplying a mobster clientele while outrunning the revenue man.
“My wife and I didn’t have a lot of money behind us, we don’t have investors, it’s me and her,” Danny said. “When we put everything into this, we needed to make money almost immediately. Look at any aged spirits — bourbons, whiskeys, anything you put in a barrel — you make it and the earliest you’re going to see a return is two years. That really wasn’t an option for us.
“So, we started looking at unaged spirits. You only have a few; you’ve got gin, vodka or you’ve got moonshine. That is primarily why we did what we did.”
Once that decision was made, the family resolved to make a unique, quality product. Their flavored moonshines are higher-alcohol than most on the shelf (70 proof, vs. around 40-50 proof), distilled from wheat to keep the burn in check.
“Knowing that I wanted flavored stuff, wheat produces a much softer flavor,” Danny said. “We also wanted a healthier product; most flavored alcohols are above 25% sugar. I wanted to scale that back. The soft flavor that a wheat-based spirit produces enables you to use less sugar and less flavoring to arrive at the same type of taste. Therefore, our median is right about 15% sugar.”
The distillery also markets a whiskey, a pair of aged bourbons (2-year and 6-year) and a vodka. Unlike the moonshine, the other spirits are distilled out of state and bottled under Crystal Ridge’s “63” label, the number denoting the chromosomes of a mule, the theme of the company’s branding. Not distilling the spirits on-site has had little if any impact on most consumers, locals and tourists alike, who are beginning to return to the tasting room and lounge.
“The biggest thing we focused on, even pre-COVID, was building a customer experience,” Asher said. “If you look across the United States, there’s 2,300 distilleries including craft and large manufacturing places. You go to the liquor store and there’s hundreds of bottles that people have never heard of. We wanted to connect with people.
“We’re a family owned and operated business, and a lot of people resonate with that. To that, we add the customer experience of our distillery tour. We’ve had people come in from Dallas/Fort Worth who said, ‘Man, my buddy was here two weeks ago and absolutely loved your place.’ People go on Google or TripAdvisor and leave us reviews. It’s all just word of mouth.”
The existential near-miss of the pandemic is still too raw for Danny to laugh about, but he does admit some of his smartest business decisions have been in response to COVID-19. Permanently closing the restaurant portion of the business heads that list, as it helped the business hone its true talent.
“I usually overestimate my abilities and underestimate the task in front of me and this has been no different,” he said. “We quickly felt we were so spread out and headed in so many different directions that we needed to bring it down a little bit off the start.
“The pandemic, even though it was brutal and still is, also enabled us to slow down just a little bit. If we would have continued on the path that we were on, I feel certain that we stood a bigger chance to fail. Now, we’ve really been able to concentrate on the things that will make us successful.”
Crystal Ridge Distillery
455 Broadway Street
Hot Springs, AR