We formed a company at the end of June 2011. We started prepping for a launch, after almost 18 months of prep, learning, planning and formulation work. We partnered with another distillery to start making products, before we set up our own distillery. We released our first products at the end of September 2011.
We launched with the special order process in Washington, meaning individual state run liquor stores had to order our product. We overwhelmed the special order system and the state asked us to list our products. We loved this, because it meant that the stores would bring it in…it was instant revenue at the start of a business. We were thrilled. We got listed and were told to expect a significant order- 200 cases per product. We prepped the order.
At that point there was an initiative on the ballot to privatize the liquor business in Washington state. No one thought the initiative would pass, because the taxation changes in it were so significant.
It passed and the outcome was that all new list products were cancelled and the state was not going to order anything for eight months until the market transitioned. We had to zero balance our revenue for our first year and cut expenses to try to survive.
We decided to spend the time talking to bartenders and developing a new flavor. We loved rhubarb and heard constantly from bartenders how hard it was to work with behind the bar. Lots of Seattle bars were using it in the spring, making a rhubarb cocktail. There weren’t any great rhubarb liqueurs out there. We decided to make a rhubarb liqueur.
We started making test batches. They were spectacular. Sour and tart, like a great rhubarb pie. We bought the rhubarb for the big batch and made it. When we finished it, we were so excited. Then, we tasted it. It didn’t have the intensity of the test batches. We weren’t sure why, but thought it might have been because of the season of the rhubarb. Our large batch used late summer rhubarb; the test batches used first spring rhubarb.
We tried different techniques in sweetening it. We gave some of our most trusted bartender friends different samples, and the result was that nobody really liked anything.
At that point, it was April 2012. We had gone six months with no revenue. We didn’t expect any revenue for another two months.
We decided not to release the rhubarb liqueur. We bought barrels from Heaven Hill and threw the unsweetened rhubarb base into them. We started talking to bartenders. A number of bartenders said, “why don’t you make amaro?” Frankly, our first response was, “What’s amaro?”.
Patient bartenders at multiple bars walked us through their amaro collection. Keith Waldbauer at Liberty was really patient with us, explaining what flavors we were tasting, how the bitter married to the sweet, where they were from and what made each one different. We tasted lots of amari. We started to really like them.
We also knew almost instantly that we could never make amaro. It was too difficult, too sophisticated for us to make. We were nailing a ginger liqueur at this point. Amaro was a combination of flavors that took you on a journey through Italy. We had gotten better at delivering one flavor. Here were dozens married together.
One bartender we spoke to suggested we get bartenders to help us. We thought this sounded like a good idea, but didn’t want to make a second mistake. We decided to ask a bunch of bartenders to help us, thinking that only 1-2 would say yes. We asked seven bartender to work with us; all seven said yes.
We didn’t want to say no to anyone, so we made seven amari. The bartenders provided us with their recipes; we made large scale batches of their recipes.
We released in January 2013. They were a hit! They were ridiculously expensive in Washington state and so many Seattle bartenders supported us by buying them. We were thrilled. We decided that working with bartenders was the way we wanted to move forward.
We continue to work with bartenders in different markets, to make different products. We’ve made 23 amari now, in partnership with bartenders. We really enjoy working this way, because it has given us a deep respect for a bartender’s palate, and expertise in putting flavor together.
We call it Project Amaro. We work with bartenders in different cities to define the terroir and palate of a place.
The heart and soul of our distillery lies in making amaro. We aren’t trying to duplicate the Italians, but to try and develop an American style, that is reflective of the terroir and palate of a place.