Article By: Fred Bouchard
Damnation Alley Distils First Vodkas and Whiskies in Boston Suburbs
“If you distill it, they will come . . .” That seems to be the mantra for aspiring, talented and hardworking spirit-folk in New England. They’ve followed the increasing trickle of craft brewers and garage winemakers creating viable independent businesses, spurred by recent state legislation allowing farmers to grow, produce and sell their wares and products. The curve of independent craft beverages has expanded from beer to wine to spirits. What’s next?
Newcomers to the bourgeoning spirits corps are five partners who collectively run Damnation Alley (DA), a start-up distillery tucked between a law firm and a very supportive photo gallery in a one-story office row along Brighton Street in Belmont. Behind its sophisticated façade – white plaster showroom, tidy 5-gallon oak barrels, gleaming slender bottles with trim black labels, and chic red neon logo – beat hearts and think minds of this collective of urban farmers.
DA’s co-owners and partners – two sisters and their husbands and a family friend – all share duties in sales and marketing as well as distilling or ‘brewing’. Alison DeWolfe, Alex and Emma Thurston and Jeremy and Jessica Gotsch all have day jobs, so it’s on nights and weekends that they run their starkly elegant storefront, bare-bones spirit-room and tiny barrel cellar. The Thurstons and Gotches share a two-family on Baker Street, a stone’s-throw away, where they tend a backyard garden raising veggies and herbs, and chilies for the flavored vodkas.
All five use skills acquired during their careers. Alison, Emma and Jessica work in retail, Jeremy managing Museum of Fine Arts’ membership databases, and Alex as a materials engineer in metallurgy. Alison used her internet and communication skills to design the web-site. Jeremy designed the bold graphic elements (labels, showroom, cards, neon) with the group’s input and veto power. His extensive restaurant work helped him develop tasting skills and pairing ideas. All five help design and implement the DA business plan.
While sales are pretty much ‘cellar-door’ at present, your reporter, in several visits and drive-bys, always sees curious customers and enthusiasts in the showroom. Recent Massachusetts legislation – designed to encourage and help local farmers – permits farmer-distillers to sell retail or to others with retail licenses. The law does not stipulate locally grown, but DA certainly fills that bill. “We’re self-distributing right now,” explains Jeremy, “but expect to be available in restaurants, perhaps even a liquor store or two down the road.” Also down the road are mail order and trade shows.
Promotion is robust on social media, mainly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds on DA’s home page. Articles have been appearing at a stately pace of one per month, in METRO BOSTON, EDIBLE BOSTON, THE BOSTON GLOBE, and THE WEEKLY DIG. Their first forays with home gardening brought a flurry of on-line buzz that they’re guiding toward their new enterprise.
Alison reports they’ve tapped into a lively dialog between craft distillers nationwide, as well as bringing together several of the dozen or so Bay State distillers in informal gatherings that boost a forum of ideas and camaraderie. That’s how they found architect John Sava, who’d built the distilleries at Roxbury’s Bully Boy and South Boston’s GrandTen and was conversant with specifications regarding extra power and water needs and venting regulations. At one event, Chris Weld – an elder statesman of the group with his 1O years at Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Great Barrington – walked in proffering vegetables from his garden and asked, ‘What can we talk about?’
They’ve kept the packaging simple – black and white with tall art deco capitals.
What’s in the name?
Alison: “Damnation Alley in colonial times was a short cut to Faneuil Hall, a one-way street with two-way traffic. We equated that with five owners in our business. Apparently there’s also a bad ‘7Os cult flick with that name.” This writer pointed out that it appealingly implies ‘danger’ and ‘funky’.
The distilling room appears bare of fancy hardware, more like a college chem lab. “More’s coming,” promises Jeremy. “Our stills are fine, but we could use a steam kettle that allows us to work with non-grains and vodka’s traditional potatoes. With our food background, we want to experiment with vegetables with high sugar content like carrots and beets.”
As for supply and demand, Jeremy says, “We’re at least getting some product out the door, but now we’re concentrating on building up the barrel program. It’s all American oak from Minnesota. I’ve not found any ideal pairing with French oak yet. Flavored vodka is on the horizon, with smoked chili vodka a definite goal. Five years ago we made a batch of wine from Concord grapes. We might use a wine barrel as a secondary barrel on a whiskey.”
Alex weighed in on their distilling process. “We double-distill our spirits,” he said, taking a break from pouring clear raw barley whiskey from a lab beaker into a steel column. “It gives it more of a character, especially on the whiskeys, using our reflux column. The distilling process is pretty straightforward. Copper parts and plates in the stills tend to have a bit of a scrubbing effect on the raw spirits, rather than just the straight stainless steel. Mankind has been distilling in earnest since the 14OOs, and stainless steel was only invented in 191O. Copper was king until then, but now people have the benefit of using whatever they want.”
There’ll be plenty of experimentation with spirits and flavors. Allison remarks: “You know people are paying attention when someone walks up to you at a gathering and says, ‘Hey, I have a juniper [or elderflower] bush in my back yard you can use when you make gin.’” On that subject, we started debating preferences and flavors. Jeremy prefers barrel-aged gin and likes Bols Genever. When Jeremy made a pizza-flavored vodka for their opening party, a pizza shop in New Jersey piped up with enthusiasm. “When we designed our still,” adds Jeremy, “it was to enhance the flavor of our grains – they’re the star of our show. That’s always the primary focus.”
PRODUCTS with sometasting notes!
Vodkas 1OO% barley
THE RE-MIXER Five filtrations, squeaky clean.
NICK THE SIPPER Coffee-filtered once, full-bodied. Sweet edge from summer barley. Banana bread, from yeast strain. Fruit component, perhaps kirschwasser.
ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK Made with back yard chilis, honey, sea salt.
Whiskeys White - unaged
House 4-grain: barley, corn, rye, and wheat
Barley 1OO% barley. Nose: sweet, tangy, akin to Scotch.
Flavor: rough so far.
Wheat 8O% wheat, 2O% barley
Whiskeys Brown [release date]
House [Januayy 2O14] 3 months aging. Nose: dessert wine, like Barsac (barley imparts honeyed note). Taste: oak, vanilla, light creaminess (wheat and barrel tang). Finish: light brown-spice, allspice or mace (from corn and rye).
Rye [late February 2O14] 6 months
Single Malt Barley [late March 2O14] 3 and 6 months
Bourbon [April 2O14]
COOPERAGE 5-gallon barrels from Black Swan in Minnesota.
PRODUCTION 12 cases a week from three 26-gallon stills.
PRICES Vodkas $35 for 75Oml and $45 for 1 liter.
White whisky $4O to $5O.
Aged whiskeys $4O for 375ml and $1OO for 1 liter.
Damnnation Alley has been able to source 1OO% of its ingredients locally. All barley and malting grains are from Valley Malt, Hadley; corn, Longfellow Yellow and Narragansett White – both 2OO-year-old strains – are from Mainstone Farm, Wayland; grain is from Four Star, Northfield; honey from Carlisle; and sea salt is from Wellfleet.
7 Brighton Street, Belmont, MA O2478