Meet Damnation Alley, a Micro-Distillery That’s Focused on ‘Local’ Like No Other
This summer, The Daily Beast made waves when it reported that many of the “small-batch” and “artisanal” distillers now popping up around the country are actually being produced at giant macro-distilling operations in Indiana and Canada. One of the culprits in the bottling practice—supposedly, just until their own barrel-aged products are fully mature—is Vermont’s WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, whose signature broad-shouldered bottle fetches upwards of $100 on retail shelves.
This sort of industry shell game has apparently gone on for quite some time in the spirits world, with over 50 labels now sourcing from Midwest Grain Products (MGD) in Indiana, according to NPR. But that bout of deflating news shouldn’t detract from the hundreds of quality independent producers braving a category dominated by the Beams and Jack Daniels of the world. One of those bona fide “craft” distillers is relative newcomer Damnation Alley out of Belmont, whose 90-bottle-a-week production technically makes them too small to even be considered a nano-distillery.
The tiny five-person operation—run by sisters Jessica Gotsch and Emma Thurston, their husbands, Jeremy Gotsch and Alex Thurston, and friend Alison DeWolfe—is the brainchild of Alex Thurston, an avid home-brewer who was looking for business opportunities outside of the saturated craft beer market. Alex turned to the spirits side of the industry and immediately fell in love, first reading through every distillation book he could find, then moving to Michigan to train under Kris Berglund at Michigan State University’s Christian CARL Distilling School.
“When Alex returned, he started to think about a business plan to open a big distillery, which would have involved a lot of investors. He realized that wasn’t the direction he wanted to go in,” says cofounder Jeremy Gotsch. “So, the idea sat on the shelf for a number of years until we found out about the Farmers-Distillery License in Massachusetts, which allows you both to distill and sell at your distillery. Jessica, Emma, and Alison all work at Newbury Comics, and together we all have retail experience to draw upon, so we said, ‘this is a model that could actually work.’”
Fortuitously, after approaching the town of Belmont with their business proposal, a properly zoned, 1,500-square-foot property became available directly across the street from the couples’ shared two-family house. The group pounced on the opportunity and named their fledgling distillery after Boston’s first one-way street, a notoriously frustrating, profanity-laden alleyway located between Quincy Market and the Royal Exchange Tavern.
“Sometimes running a small business, especially in tight quarters, can be a lot like that,” DeWolfe says.
The name also became an inauspicious harbinger of a federal and state licensing process which took almost two years to settle. When the company was finally able to open its doors though, the team honed in on a sustainable, hyper-local mentality that has helped distinguish it from the competition.
“All of our ingredients come from Massachusetts,” Gotsch says. “Our barley comes from Valley Malt in Hadley. Our wheat and rye come from Four Star Farms in Northfield. Our corn comes from Wayland. And when we do flavored products, most of those ingredients actually come from our house. We have a fairly extensive yard that is mostly dedicated to growing vegetables and fruits. We even grow some of the ingredients at the distillery itself, such as the ginger root in our upcoming ginger wheat whiskey. It’s extremely out of the ordinary to find a distillery that’s as localized as this.”
The distillery now produces three unaged single malt whiskeys, two kinds of wheat-based vodkas (a sipping and mixing version distinguished by the amount of filtration), an oat vodka, and several types of oak aged whiskeys. Their one regret? Having to purchase barrels out of Minnesota and Colorado, while their search continues for a Massachusetts cooper who can craft smaller vessels—something that accelerates the costly maturation process.
“For aging purposes, we’re using teeny tiny barrels which we can get good results on even after just a few months,” Gotsch says. “Everything we’ve put out to this point is either three- or six-month whiskey. Honestly, you don’t want to go much past six months on this size barrel because you start to get too many oaky off-flavors from the tannin in the wood.”
While many craft distillers resort to purchasing outside product from the likes of MGD, Damnation Alley has been able to avoid that bit of accepted chicanery—as well as heated cellars and newer technologies like ultrasound machines and pressured chambers—and still put out a marketable product. In February, Damnation Alley also put down their first 15-gallon barrel of straight whiskey, which they’ll release sometime between spring 2016 and early 2018.
“It’s such a common thing now to buy a whiskey that’s been aged 10 or 20 years, but as a distiller you start thinking about this barrel that you’ll just have sitting there for 18 years, or whatever,” Gotsch says. “Certainly with a large scale manufacturer it’s not so daunting a task, but when you’re our size, it’s almost impossible to conceive.”
As the distillery continues to find an audience, Damnation Alley remains “a night and weekend operation,” according to Gotsch. Alex spends most of his time as a metallurgist, Jeremy as an employee at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the others at Newbury Comics. But each member of the company somehow finds enough time to harvest, cook, and hand-label each and every bottle.
Jeremy says that they’d love to get to the point where they could all quit their day jobs and focus on the distillery, but they’re willing to enjoy the small victories, such as seeing their products poured at upscale establishments like Bondir and Backbar. And thanks to the five principles, you should soon be able to pick up a bottle of rye or “One Night in Bangkok” vodka (thai sweet chili flavored) at your local farmer’s market.
“Our next frontier is working with the UMass Farmer’s Market Association to change its licensing so distillers can sell at farmer’s markets,” Gotsch says. “Right now you can buy wine and cider, and the last time I talked with them they are very close to getting breweries in as well. We think for a small company like us, especially with such a ‘local’ focus, that would really be an ideal next step.”
7 Brighton St., Belmont; 617-932-1360 or damnationalleydistillery.com.