Rock Town Distillery hopes to put Arkansas liquor on the map

At least up to this point in history, Arkansas isn’t necessarily known as a place for liquor production.

Sure, the Wiederkehr family have been making wine in Altus for a long time. And yes, Diamond Bear beer out of Little Rock makes a mean Presidential India Pale Ale (among other things). I really like the Curly Tail Pale Ale at Hog Haus, and I’m pretty sure that somewhere in Arkansas there must be some whiskey stills hidden beneath the canopies of trees and brush in backwoods areas.

For the most part though, when people around the country think liquor, they don’t think of Arkansas.

Phil Brandon, owner and head distiller for the newly-opened Rock Town Distillery in Arkansas is hoping to change that.

Rock Town Distillery opened in June of this year in Little Rock, and just over a month ago, the first bottles of Brandon’s Gin and Vodka made their way into restaurants, bars, and onto liquor store shelves throughout the state. Rock Town Distillery will also begin selling Bourbon once the first batches have been properly aged, sometime in spring 2011.

According to Brandon, each batch of his Gin, Vodka and Bourbon is made with 100% Arkansas grains & produce.

Phil Brandon testing the bourbon

This weekend, Brandon will be in town to let some Fayetteville folks try his Arkansas-made liquors with two free tasting events schedule on Friday, Oct. 8 at 21st Amendment, and on Saturday, Oct. 9 at Bordino’s.

We got in touch with him recently, and he was nice enough to answer some questions for us.

FF: What have you been listening to lately?
Phil Brandon: Mainly country. I like Justin Moore and Brad Paisley. My musical tastes vary all the time.

FF: Give us a brief history of Rock Town Distillery.
PB: Rock Town Distillery is Arkansas’ first craft distillery and produces Brandon’s Vodka, Brandon’s Gin and Brandon’s Bourbon. Our premium-distilled spirits are hand-made in small batches using 100% Arkansas grains and produce and are now available in liquor stores, bars and restaurants statewide.

We moved in our building in April and it took about three and a half months to convert the old building we’re in into a distillery. We started our first batch in mid-July of this year with our Vodka and Gin going on the market the last week of August. Our first batch of bourbon was put in the barrels on July 20 and is busy aging in our barrel house. The bourbon will be available statewide in February or March.

FF: We’ve heard that we’re about to experience a “craft distillery renaissance” here in the US over the next few years. Would you agree with that?
PB: Absolutely. Craft distilleries have carved out a new industry across the United States in recent years. The U.S. has gone from less than fifty distilleries a few years ago to over two hundred today. It’s very similar to what craft brewing went through 15 or 20 years ago. Every batch of Brandon’s is based on rigorous, old-fashioned distillation methods using a hand-operated pot still. Pot stills require more labor but allow the craft distiller significant control over flavors and give broad room for experimentation. This allows us to focus on local ingredients and unusual techniques to make small volume batches of high-quality spirits. Rock Town Distillery is the first craft distillery in the state.

Ready for shipping

FF: Being the first distillery in Arkansas must have come with some legal/legislative hurdles. Did you have to jump through some hoops to make it happen?
PB: It’s a daunting process. Lots of papers to fill out, checks to write, information to share with government officials – but in the end definitely worth it.

FF: You said that all of your products are made with Arkansas ingredients. Who are some of your suppliers?
PB: We use Arkansas soft red winter wheat and Arkansas corn to create Brandon’s Vodka, Gin and Bourbon. Our grains come from Stratton Seed in Stuttgart. We even age our bourbon in barrels that are coopered in Hot Springs, Arkansas by a fourth-generation cooper at Gibbs Bros. Cooperage. When possible, all suppliers of raw materials for Brandon’s spirits are Arkansas businesses and farmers, from the wheat to the shipping boxes.

There is a real movement among consumers to support and buy locally grown products, especially new and interesting varieties of food and drink. The goal of each batch of Brandon’s is to combine local products to capture a complete picture of the fruit being distilled. Rock Town Distillery is constantly experimenting, smelling and tasting the spirits to achieve distinctively different flavors. These are new and unique craft spirits – something Arkansans can be proud of.

FF: We actually sampled a bit of Batch 1 of your vodka, but I heard you’ve already made some tweaks to the recipe. What’s better about Batch 2?
PB: Being a craft distiller implies that there is a “craft” to it. We definitely are craftsmen, working with our hands and our wits. We are constantly working to improve what we do. Each batch we try to make a good as we can. Brandon’s Vodka is exceptionally smooth with a gentle sweetness and a soft flavor while its aroma is reminiscent of sweet warm wheat and vanilla. Brandon’s Gin contains complex flavors that come from the vapor infusion technique used to create it. Seven organic botanicals are used to give Brandon’s Gin its distinctive taste: juniper, coriander, angelica, cinnamon, bitter orange peel, lemon peel and licorice.

FF: What are some places in NWA that carry Brandon’s?
PB: We’re in most of the major liquor stores now and spreading quickly. If you don’t see it at the bar or on the shelf, ask for it. We think you’ll really love it. (see list below)

FF: Tell us about the tasting events in Fayetteville this weekend. How do those generally work?
PB: We set up a table and pour small tastes of our products for folks to try. No mixers, just straight tastes. I explain the process used to make them, describe how to taste a spirit, and answer questions. It’s a really fun way for us to take these special spirits straight to the people. (see schedule below)

FF: Anything else you want folks to know about Rock Town?
PB: These craft spirits are not like your run-of-the-mill vodkas and gins. The tastes and aromas of our spirits are distinctively different. In fact, our Brandon’s Gin just won the 4-star award from Beverage Experts, a well-respected online magazine that focuses on wine, beer and liquor. We’re pretty excited about that.

We also offer tours of the distillery in Little Rock and have a tasting room and a gift shop. Folks can learn more at

Free Brandon’s tasting events

Date: Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Location: 21st Amendment – 406 W Dickson St

Date: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Location: Bordino’s – 310 W Dickson St

Where to find Brandon’s in Fayetteville

Crossover Liquor – 1890 N Crossover Rd
Liquor Mart & Wine Shoppe – 2100 N College Ave
Liquor To Go – 2831 N Garland Ave
Mid-Way Liquor – 908 E Rolling Hills Dr
Sam’s Club – 3081 N Highway 112
Spirits Shop – 1242 N Garland Ave
Theo’s – 318 N Campbell Ave