“You don’t have to know all the science of fermentation and distillation to be a great distiller,” Bruce Boeko says as he walks between the gleaming stainless steel vats and tanks filling the production area of Nashville Craft Distillery. The air is heavy with the yeasty smell of fermentation and the sharp, acidic tang of carbon dioxide as millions of tiny yeast cells convert grain sugars into alcohol.
“I talk about the science because I’m interested in it,” he continues, raising the volume of his voice over the massive industrial fans keeping the distillery floor temperature at a humid 80 degrees. “I like to give visitors a different experience. People who take our tour may be visiting three or four other distilleries. If you go to Nelson’s Green Brier, they’ll talk to you about their family history with distilling. At H Clark, they talk about the state laws that they helped change to allow craft distilleries, and Corsair is very creative with exotic ingredients like smoked malts and non-traditional grains like buckwheat, quinoa, and oats. We all have different parts of the story to tell.”
AT A CROSSROADS
Boeko has another, more definite reason for focusing on science. As a forensic biologist, he spent two decades working in DNA testing laboratories before making the leap from identifying and classifying genetic material to the far older science of fermentation and distilling.
Born in Montreal, Canada, Boeko grew up in Louisiana and northern New Jersey before moving to North Carolina to attend college. After earning his degree in biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he began working in a local DNA testing laboratory. In 1996, his career brought him to Nashville. Settling on the East Side, Boeko spent the next 15 years rising steadily in his profession, but the stability of his career in corporate science came to an end in 2011.
“I found myself at a crossroads,” Boeko says. “Our laboratory was consolidating its operations to Dallas, and I had to decide to stay with the company and move or quit and stay here. I had fallen in love with Nashville. I was at a point in my life where I had a great career but was still young enough to take a swing at entrepreneurship. I left the company with enough money to go back to school, get a business degree, and open my own business. I’d been an amateur brewer, cider maker, mead maker for 30 years, but I chose distilling over brewing because of the potential for growth and because I could learn a new skill set.”
While regional breweries had been a fixture across Tennessee for many years, the production of distilled spirits had been limited to only three Tennessee counties since the repeal of prohibition in the 1930s. A major revision to Tennessee’s alcohol statutes in 2009 opened a path for small, craft distilleries in counties where retail and liquor-by-the-drink sales were legal. In the past nine years, the number of Tennessee distilleries has grown from three to over 30, with more on the way. This spectacular growth has not only created new jobs and tax revenues, but has dramatically expanded the market for specialized and unusual spirits in local markets.
“Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys take a while,” Boeko says. “You have to barrel age them for several years. When Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel came back after prohibition, they were making fruit brandies, corn whiskeys, and other things that you could get to market faster. With the growth of craft distilleries, the craft gin market has exploded. You can make it in a short period of time and be endlessly creative.”
THE WAVE OF TENNESSEE WHISKEYS
Introduced shortly after Nashville Craft Distillery fired up its still for the first time in 2016, Crane City Gin is a prime example of endless creativity in action. Distilled from locally sourced wheat and malted barley, it’s infused with seven botanicals, creating a light and tasty spirit with a very clean finish.
“We also make Naked Biscuit Sorghum Spirit,” Boeko says. “It’s similar to rum but different because it’s not made from sugar cane. I looked around for what was available in Tennessee to ferment, and sorghum was available. We’re focusing on using local ingredients. We use grain from Windy Acres organic farm in Orlinda, grain from Nicely Brothers Farms in Strawberry Plains, and sorghum from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill outside of Monterey, Tennessee. Our Honey Spiced Honey Liqueur is made with honey from Johnson’s Honey Farm in Goodlettsville.
“And it’s not just us,” Boeko continues. “There are many other small distilleries with creative products. Craft distilleries currently comprise about 2 1/2 percent of the spirits market and we have an opportunity to expand to 10 to 15 percent over the next few years. We’re going to get more variety and more local spirits that you can’t get anywhere else. The wave of Tennessee whiskeys and other Tennessee-based spirits is just beginning to crest. It’s an exciting time to be in this business.”
In addition to the excitement over new products and a growing market, Boeko finds simple satisfaction in the hands-on crafting of fine spirits. Nashville Craft Distillery’s 250-gallon copper pot runs six to seven days each week producing both their current and new products. Third Stage Absinthe Verte recently made its debut — the first green absinthe distilled in Nashville. Golden Biscuit Aged Sorghum Spirit will soon be taking its bow, and the distillery’s first wheated bourbon is expected to reach maturity in 2019.
“There’s something about coming in every morning filling the mash cooker, getting fermentation underway, running the still, and filling barrels,” Boeko says. “There’s a physical reward to working here, beyond the great smells. There’s a pride in making something you can see, smell, and taste each day. There’s just something about Nashville that speaks to a culture of making unique things — whether it’s music, art, food, or a really fine whiskey.”