- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - The Pollocks sat around their dining room table back in October 2012 for what was supposed to be a casual family dinner.

Chad, the son, had just finished college. He wasn’t sure what profession he wanted to pursue, so he worked for his father. Amber, Chad’s older sister, had recently started her dream job as a music teacher. Bill, the father, co-owned a business for 13 years. Kathy, the mother, was a teacher.

The family started onto the topic of one of Chad’s frustrations. He is a big fan of absinthe, the anise-flavored spirit, possessing a collection of bottles that spans across the world. The problem? Chad was struggling to find new brands.

“Well, why don’t you make some?” Kathy asked.

It was just a comment, not necessarily a serious one. But everyone at the table stopped.

Was that possible? Could they do that? Why shouldn’t they do that?

Kathy and the family researched for two weeks. They found instructions on how to make absinthe. They learned about the booming craft distillery business. They realized it would be illegal to experiment in making absinthe or any other spirit without a distilled spirits plant (DSP), meaning they would need an operating distillery.

So, that’s what they did.

Chad was the first to quit his job, quickly attending distilling classes throughout the country. Kathy was next, leaving teaching at the end of the school year. Bill followed, selling his shares of his business. Amber was last, ditching her dream career for an opportunity to work for the new family business.

Bill and Kathy funded the capital with savings. They bought a property. They ordered materials. They planned out their company, keeping everything secret from friends.

Three months after a casual family dinner in October, the Pollocks owned Casper’s first craft distillery, Backwards Distilling.

The country has seen a rapid increase in the numbers of craft breweries and distilleries. When the Pollock family first began their business more than two years ago, there were around 200 craft distilleries across the country. Now, that number is closer to 600.

But even with the increase in popularity, Wyoming is behind the curve.

“If you look at surrounding states, they have a lot more distilleries than we do, and I feel like we have some catching up to do,” Amber, 26, said. (Our family) felt like people here would be interested in (a craft distillery) because there’s not a lot of things like this.”

The plan from the beginning was to feature four types of spirits: vodka, rum, and two different gins. Backwards Distilling would be the only distillery in Wyoming where you could buy local, handmade, clear spirits.

No one in the family had experience making spirits, so they split their work into strengths.

Chad, the 24-year-old with a 6-inch beard and handlebar mustache, would be the master distiller. He traveled across the country to different craft distilleries, attending seminars and conventions.

Amber would be responsible for marketing, promotion and the tasting room, where she would specialize in her long-time passion of cocktail making.

Kathy and Bill appointed themselves handymen. Their job was to turn the purple carpeted, cubicle filled office space they purchased into a distillery. Bill would also take care of any paperwork, licensing or legal procedures.

Friends were supportive when they found out about the Pollocks distillery, but “At the same time, everybody kind of had the same response: Can you do that? Is that possible? You guys might be a little crazy.”

The family planned to open Backwards Distilling in December 2013. But you can’t open a distillery if you aren’t producing alcohol. They pushed it back to July 2014. Then September. Then October.

At some points during the process, the Pollocks were working 70- to 90-hour weeks.

It took more than two years of trials and errors, but on a Monday night in November, the Pollocks finally mastered and bottled their first spirit.

It’s called Ringleader Vodka.

The distilling room is a large space, about 45 yards long, furnished with equipment that looks like machines out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

The stills are made of copper, shinier than new pennies. Two twin tower stills stood tall over the others, their bodies lined with silver circular windows like an oversized copper clarinet. Pipes connected to other pipes, coupled with gauges and switches and wires. The room was like a spider web. Break one link, and the whole thing would fall apart.

Most of the equipment in the distillery came from Germany, hand-made and custom ordered, costing as much as “an exotic sports car.” If putting together these intricate machines weren’t difficult enough, the instructions were in German.

“Luckily, iPhones have a nice little translator app,” Chad said. “So I did a word at a time.”

Every piece of equipment suffered from some type of problem during the early going.

“There was nothing we just put in here, and was just like, boom, it worked,” Chad said. “Every single thing had a learning curve or something we’ve had to address.”

Once the machines started to work, Chad had to learn how to make alcohol in mass quantities. He was accustomed to using his tiny, science lab test still that was eight gallons.

“And now, we were on 538 gallons.”

On the first day the Pollocks bottled a product, the distilling room smelled of sweet, buttery corn with a slight hint of alcohol.

At the base of the shiny stills looked to be a leaking faucet, a thin stream dribbling into a stainless steel cylinder. The liquid was 190 proof. In order for a spirit to be legally called vodka, it must come off the still at that proof. Every so often, Chad ran his finger under the stream, and licked it for taste, assuring his product maintained its unique components.

The fermenting process is the biggest role in distillation. That is where you create flavors. The Pollocks selected a special brand of yeast for their vodka, and opted to use 100 percent wheat instead of corn or rye.

When the cylinder eventually fills, Chad will bring it to another station, using instruments to dilute the liquid using reverse osmosis water, proofing it down to 80.

Fermenting and proofing are two of the many new processes Chad has learned through trial and error.

“Vodka is the hardest thing to make, which is what’s weird,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make something taste like nothing. So much finesse.”

Backwards Distilling’s vodka does not taste like your typical vodka. It has a buttery flavor and a full mouth feel, with a slight, but not sharp, burn.

“If you try our vodka and compare it to a Smirnoff or a Grey Goose, it’s going to be a lot different,” Chad said. “We are going to have more character to it.”

The bottling process was a Pollock family assembly line. The vodka was poured into an elevated tank, where it flowed through special tubing. Bill filled each bottle to a specified height. He corked the top, and placed the bottle under a light, assuring there was no sediment mixed in with the liquid. If it passed the test, he slid the bottle to Kathy, who used a labeling machine to imprint a swanky, blue label on the outside.

Amber placed another thinner label on the neck of the bottle, shrink-wrapped a piece of plastic on top of the cork, and moved it into a box. The vodka would be sent to Cheyenne so the state could receive its tax revenue, and then shipped to stores statewide.

In four hours, the family finished 275 bottles out of 1,500. It would take around 32 hours to finish the batch.

Next to the distillery is a dimly lit room. It has black leather couches, old fashion light bulbs, monkey statues holding umbrellas, a side room full of mirrors, tables and chairs and a long bar next to a lit “TASTE” sign.

This is Amber’s domain. She is in charge of the tasting room. She developed her own cocktail menu, and will specialize in exclusively serving Backwards Distilling’s products, including their recipe for Moscow Mules on draft.

“We’re trying to get it speakeasy style,” she said. “We won’t have super long hours, we won’t be open until 2 a.m., we don’t want to be that type of place. Just a casual drink to come try our stuff and see what we have to offer.”

The theme of the room, as well as the distillery, is sideshow. Both Amber and Chad attended circus camps when they were kids. That’s why their vodka is called Ringleader. One gin will be called Contortionist, the other Strongman, and the rum will be called Sword Swallower.

Even the distilling equipment is playing along. The mash tanks and stills are named after members from the Ringling Bros. Circus. Mash tanks are Augustus, Alfred and Ida (who was a Ringling Sister). The stills are Jumbo and Flee. Jumbo was an elephant, and Flee was a little dog that would stand on Jumbo’s head.

For now, only vodka is available. And even though it’s just one spirit, the Pollocks are ready for customers.

“The initial idea was to have vodka and rum out at the same time, but we are already past when we wanted to be open in the first place,” Amber said. “We kind of like the marketing approach of getting to do a big release with each new spirit that comes out, a big themed party.

“We just want to open.”

More than two years since that casual dinner, Backwards Distilling will host a grand opening in mid January. If you can’t wait until then, Ringleader Vodka is now on shelves across the state, costing about $30 to $35.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s just been an amazing experience,” Chad said. “Every single day working here, I learn more than I think I ever have in a day.”

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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