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Making a good first impression is hard. Getting a second chance after a bad first impression is even harder.
Maybe nobody in town knows that better than Phil Brandon. He opened Brandon's Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock, a micro-scale operation on East Sixth Street, in July 2010, turning out gin, vodka and un-aged moonshine-style whiskey in 250-gallon batches. It was, by anybody's recollection, the first legal distillery in Arkansas in living memory, and hopes were high.
The problem, Brandon himself now acknowledges, is that their early efforts weren't very good.
From adversity comes determination, however, and after Brandon worked out some formula and equipment kinks, Rock Town's spirits have recently won top awards at some of the best liquor competitions in the world. He's hoping to get the word out, and crossing his fingers that drinkers are willing to give Rock Town's spirits another try.
Brandon said that though the friends, associates and consultants he initially tried his alcohol out on seemed to like it, the general consensus among the buying public was that the early batches didn't taste "clean" enough. "Everybody said that the vodka and the gin smelled and tasted like tequila," he said. "It wasn't a clean tasting spirit. It had too many other flavors in it. It wasn't a pure flavor. ... I think primarily it was because we were all tasting it straight, and it tasted OK straight. But when we started to mix it later on, we found out that it didn't mix very well." Brandon said that a big part of the problem was that their new still, bought from a maker in Kentucky, wasn't set quite right. The problem took months to sort out.
"We kind of stubbed our toe," he said. "Or, basically just dropped a 5,000-pound weight on our toe, I guess."
By the time they got the still working correctly and other problems ironed out, the bad word-of-mouth had already done its damage among consumers. While sales were initially good after the Rock Town's flashy grand opening, they soon fell off.
"You think you've hired the experts that are going to be able to tell you everything you need to know," he said. "I went to the training classes, and studied and did everything, but it turns out that I got some bad consulting and I got some faulty equipment to start out with, and ended up with a substandard product."
Brandon said that the distillery eventually decided that keeping the early batches on the shelves "wasn't doing us any favors" and instituted a quiet recall, pulling bottles from liquor stores all over Central Arkansas. In the meantime, Brandon was working to make each batch better than the last, paying close attention to the details.
That quest seems to have paid off, if the critics are any measure. The competition season for spirits is in February and March, and Rock Town Distillery's products have been steadily racking up the awards this year. At the international Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York City in early March, Brandon's vodka bested hundreds of others from around the globe — including the output of storied makers like Stolichnaya, Skyy and Ketel One — and came within one point of being named the best in the world. Around the same time, Brandon's un-aged "Arkansas Lightning" whiskey was awarded a gold medal from Chicago's Beverage Testing Institute. Grey Goose vodka has been trumpeting a gold medal they received from the BTI in their advertising for years, Brandon said. At the San Francisco World Spirits Competition held March 18-20, Brandon's gin won a double gold medal — one of only six gins entered this year that won double gold.
"For a handmade gin from Little Rock, Arkansas, to be up there with Beefeater and Bombay and all the other international brands, that's a great honor," Brandon said.
Brandon said that keeping quality high is the only way to get over the hump of consumer suspicion caused by the early stumble.
"It's not the way that it was planned," he said, "but I think it's probably made us better. If we'd come right out of the chute with a decent product but not a great product, we probably would have been OK with that. With the urgency we had — the feedback from the market that was: this isn't any good — I went straight to work on it. That's what I do every day: quality, quality, quality. Make it better, better, better."
Brandon's first bourbon is scheduled to appear this summer.