Illustration by @deadbinky.

Salt Lake City is an amazing place to live in an amazing state—despite its issues with alcohol. It’s so awesome that over five years ago, I started a restaurant and brewery business, which now operates in three different locations and is looking into expansion. One of our central tenets since the inception of the company has been making buying local products a priority, but “local” can seem like a slippery concept, especially when it comes to craft brewing. Using the ingredients that are abundant around you can create a connection to the beer that would be otherwise impossible, and it’s increasingly important to me to use as source as much as I can locally.


A History Erased: How Local Ended

Beer is an inherently agricultural product, but its production has been industrialized and separated from the farms that used to be integral to its creation. Up until the late 19th century, it was common for American breweries to use only locally grown grain and hops, largely because of the difficulty and expense of getting imported products. Due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution—and, eventually, the prohibition of alcohol in 1919—agriculture and brewing were consolidated into ever larger conglomerate companies taking advantage of large-scale operations. By the middle of the 20th century, this trend had continued to the point where a few large breweries were responsible for almost all the beer brewed in America, and smaller, regional operations like Utah’s original A. Fisher Brewing (closed in 1960) were disappearing in favor of homogenized, mass-market products like Miller or Budweiser.

We all now know how this story continues: Adventurous homebrewers started opening the country’s first “microbreweries,” brewing flavorful, interesting beer to contrast with the watery yellow stuff that came in large cases from the supermarket and all tasted the same. Many of these new businesses started in industrial parts of town and served to revitalize decrepit neighborhoods, like Squatters Brewing’s first pub in Downtown Salt Lake City’s in the early ’90s, just as my company, Proper Brewing, is attempting to do in the Central Ninth area now. Being produced locally is good, but what’s more, artisans are increasingly trying to use products with local origins as well. The vast majority of hops grown in United States comes from Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest, which poses the question of whether a brewer not in the Pacific Northwest can’t make local beer if it has those hops in it. As far as it concerns Utah, because of its climate, location and agricultural heritage, our state has some amazing ingredients that can help a beer cross that line from just being made locally to really being unique to this state.

From the Ground Up: Mountain Malt
mountainmalt.com

The first time I stepped inside a malthouse was near Idaho Falls, Idaho, in June of 2016. The aroma of steeping barley malt being worked inside was unlike anything I had smelled before, yet comfortingly familiar. While it used to be common for breweries also to have malting operations onsite, most modern companies only handle the finished product, and many brewers may never visit the source of where their grain is grown or malted. What I was being offered by Mountain Malt owner Jake Burtenshaw was the opportunity to trace the beer I made from the glass it was served in back to the ground where it was grown.

I had first met Burtenshaw the year before while attending a get-together for brewers at Idaho Falls Brewing Company. His family has been growing barley in Eastern Idaho for generations and selling it to the large malting operations run by Anheuser-Busch and Modelo based in Idaho Falls. Even though it’s from Idaho, this barley is truly local, as most of the fields are less than three hours from Salt Lake City—much closer than the traditional Utah landmarks of Zion, or Grand Escalante. In true entrepreneurial spirit, Burtenshaw saw the opportunity to work with smaller craft brewers and began developing his own malting equipment. He refined his process until he could make barley malt of a similar quality to anything being produced in North America, and I was happy to be one of his first craft customers. Now he is continuing to expand his capacity to keep up with demand from brewers all over Utah and Idaho. I personally use over a ton of his malt every month, and that could double by the end of this year. Every time I brew with his malt, my mind goes back to stepping into that malthouse. I think of walking from there into the adjacent fields and handling some of the raw, green grain, fresh from the ground. The sense of connection to the beer I make—which this direct relationship with the raw materials creates—is indescribable.

Busy Bees: Slide Ridge Honey
slideridge.com

While malted grain is often called the “soul” of beer, there are plenty of other opportunities to use local ingredients in beer making, and there is no more iconic Utah product than honey. The Mormon pioneers adopted the beehive and the honeybee in their iconography, and it has come to influence everything around us here. Their name for this territory, “Deseret,” means honeybee, and our state motto, “Industry,” directly references bees working in a hive. Local industry is what craft brewing is all about. Martin James started Slide Ridge Honey in Logan, Utah, in 2004 after a lifelong fascination with bees. His business has grown to include most of his family members as owners and employees, and they produce not only world-class honey but honey vinegar and other culinary products as well. During a time when honeybee populations are declining around the world, James’ hives are strong due to his commitment to traditional beekeeping practices. Honey was one of the earliest natural foods fermented into alcohol by humans, so it only makes sense to continue this tradition in modern craft brewing. I use James’ honey in several beers, but most prominently in my Stumblebee Vienna Lager, an amber-colored beer that’s smooth and balances rich honey flavors with delicate malt notes. James’ bees harvest pollen and nectar from all over Northern Utah, and those sources have a direct effect on the quality of their honey, which, in turn, directly affects the flavor of the beer in your pint glass. I can pour that beer and taste the industry of this Utah family.

Fruits of Their Labor: Woodyatt Cherry Farm
woodyattcherryfarm.com

Another family-farm operation I’m proud to connect with is Woodyatt Cherry Farm in Willard, Utah. You may know them as the folks selling sour montmorency cherries and cherry concentrate at the Northwest corner of the Downtown Farmers Market every Summer. As a frequent market patron, I had seen their stand often, but not being the biggest cherry fan, I had glossed over their products. That was until I was looking to produce a small-batch sour beer, closest in style to a traditional kriek lambic beer from Belgium, and when I found out that Belgian brewers prize montmorency cherries, I jumped at the opportunity to source them locally. Dan and Lisa Woodyatt run the farm, which started in 1998, and I’ve been able to work closer with them on each batch. Originally, I was just buying frozen juice from them at the market, due to me making the beer out of cherry season. But with each iteration, I’ve needed more juice, and they’ve been happy to supply me directly. Next year’s batch of Proper Brett Kriek will contain over 30 gallons of fresh juice direct from pressing, and is looking to be the best version yet, all because of my relationship with these farmers. And Woodyatt isn’t the only fruit farm in Utah. All I have to do is look around to find opportunities to collaborate with Utahns who take pride in growing amazing products.

Spice of Life: Redmond Real Salt
realsalt.com

One of the joys of using local products is that you might discover something you hadn’t thought of before. When I brewed my first batch of a traditional German style called a “gose” (pronounced “GO-zuh”) in 2014, I had only read about it in books. A style that had gone extinct but was being revitalized by experimental brewers, gose isn’t what most people think of when it comes to beer. A sour wheat ale seasoned with coriander and salt? My business partners were skeptical—and, admittedly, so was I—but my curiosity was piqued. In sourcing ingredients, I had an epiphany that, as the first gose brewed in Salt Lake City, it should use local salt. I did some research and was most intrigued by Redmond Real Salt, a mineral salt mined from an ancient seabed in what is now central Utah. Real salt is raw, undergoes no refining process and, as such, is tinged a light “pink” color by over 60 trace minerals still present. The first brew was a surprising success, and now my Lake Effect Gose is one of Proper Brewing’s best-selling beers. I’ve tasted gose brewed with traditional kosher salt, and something is not quite the same—the source of even something as commonplace and taken for granted as salt can make a big difference. I’m now using over 300 pounds of real salt every year to keep up with my customers’ taste for this sour, tangy brew that owes its flavor to the literal ground of the state of Utah.

Regaining History: Just Down the Street

At the end of a long brew day, using locally sourced ingredients is about peace of mind. We’ve all heard that buying local keeps your money in your community, but it’s become easy to take that as a cliché and lose the real human impact there. If you buy a beer with local ingredients, those dollars are being passed from the brewers directly on to local suppliers, whether it’s farmers or other local artisans like coffee roasters or chocolate makers. I feel better when I can establish relationships that improve where I live, and I’m happier when I can buy products that represent the place where they were made and the people who made them. I believe It’s about reversing the trend of the 20th century toward homogenized standard products, and instead finding unique elements from each place that can make products special.

(L–R) Zion Brewery Assistant Brewer Jay Mecham, Head Brewer Jeremy Baxter and Sales and Distribution Manager Frank Giammalva have stewarded the brewery’s successful rebranding. Photo courtesy of Zion Brewery

Zion Brewery
zionbrewery.com
2400 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy,
Springdale, UT 84767
435.772.0404

Zion Brewery has gone through more than a few changes over the years. But with a fresh start, the gloves are off for Utah’s southernmost brewery. Located in Springdale, the gateway to one of our state’s most famous and scenic national parks, the brewery has ample opportunity to capitalize on the booming tourism business of the area. Zion Canyon Brewing Company, as the brewery was originally called, was founded and owned by Dale Harris, who oversaw its inception and operated as Head Brewer. Harris expanded, opening a brew pub and even bottling several core brands like Virgin Stout and Jamaican Lager for distribution as far north as Salt Lake City. With expansion came additional cost, and Harris sought some investors, most of whom left the company within a year. One who didn’t was Brooks Pace, owner of the Majestic View Lodge in Springdale, the basement of which currently houses the brewery. By 2013, Harris was gone, and Pace had purchased the entire brewery, bringing in new staff to help with quality and sales. Jeremy Baxter started in late 2013 and assumed full Head Brewer responsibilities in 2014, while Brooks’ son, Cris Pace, began managing the brewery.

The brewery lost some ground before the current team took over. A change was needed in the way the brewery operated, and sacrifices had to be made. “We had to cut down to bare bones, [so] we dropped our distributor and scrapped the bottling line,” Pace says. “We wanted to get our keg line solid and pretty much started from scratch.” That meant reorganizing the brewery from the floor up: cleaning tanks and other equipment, reformulating recipes and improving practices across the board. “It was exciting and very stressful and very demanding, but I was up for the challenge,” Baxter says of the long hours and difficult work required. “It took a long time with me down here hustling and fine-tuning for the reputation to start to build.” And slowly but surely, the ground that had been lost was starting to be earned back.

Some breweries have a hard time emerging from a setback like the newly rebranded Zion Brewery experienced, but having the right people in the right places can make all the difference. With the return of quality and exciting beers, it was becoming tough for Baxter to keep up. After a few candidates came and went, Baxter hired Jay Mecham as his Assistant Brewer, and the impact was immediate. “He came in when we were so far behind the eight ball and learned so fast,” Baxter says. “The quality and attention to detail was so good that I know for a fact [that] everything is being done correctly.” Both Baxter and Pace agree that a key element to their progress has been Sales and Distribution Manager Frank Giammalva, who came on in late 2016 to help handle the increased demand for Zion Brewery’s beer. “He’s been a great pickup for us,” Pace says, “getting new keg accounts left and right.” The passion that each of these team members brings with them to work is palpable, and they have good reason to be excited.

With excellent staff and the right leadership, Zion Brewery shifted the focus back to the beer, and Baxter’s continued devotion to improvement shows in the draft list available at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub right at the mouth of Zion Canyon National Park in Springdale, less than three miles from the brewery. There are many to highlight, but something that jumps out immediately is Foray, a kettle-soured ale flavored with pomegranate. This adventurous ale is technically difficult to brew, but Baxter wasn’t daunted. “It’s so great to have something beyond what people expect, especially from a small, little brewery,” he says. Early batches of this beer earned them recognition and interest at last year’s SLUG Mag on Tap beer festival in Salt Lake City, the first event that the brewery had been able to participate in for several years. In addition, there are some reborn classics like Baxter’s newer take on the Jamaican Lager and new additions like the Echo Canyon Session IPA, a favorite of Pace’s.

The brewery produced just over 1,100 barrels of beer last year and sold all of it to regional accounts, many located in Springdale itself, but also as far afield as St. George, Cedar City and Kanab. This year, Baxter hopes to do closer to 1,500 barrels, and thoughts of expansion and the future are definitely on everyone’s mind. “We have one more bright tank coming in June, and that will give us another 30 barrels a month, maybe more,” he says of 2018. The team is also beginning to talk about bottling and canning again, distribution and even doing some high-point beers for sale at the brewery or in liquor stores. “We’re taking things a step at a time,” says Pace. “We’ve learned from past mistakes: If you reach too far, it can bite you.” But with the patience, energy and love for the craft that this small brewery exhibits, don’t count on them losing ground anytime soon. Look for Zion Brewery beers the next time you’re down exploring the area’s amazing natural heritage, and raise a pint for the hardworking Utahns who make it happen.

With the bevy of new distilleries opening in Utah and more of their products hitting the shelves all the time, there’s a lot to sort through. Here’s a handy set of reviews to save you time on your next trip to the state stores. Imbibe safely!



Beehive Organic Vodka
Beehive Distilling

Description: This straightforward-looking liter bottle is exactly what I like to see when looking for vodka. No gimmicks, frills or attitude. Besides notifying us that its contents are certified organic, it’s somewhat unassuming. Clear spirits are best shown off like that. The nose is slightly sweet and mineral, with a hint of complementary grass. The flavor is similar with a rich mouthfeel, which is round but not sticky. The finish is clean, with a bit of grass and not quite dry.

Overview: Vodka is divisive; many use it specifically for its “lack” of flavor. But a really good vodka is a thing of beauty: clean, smooth and pure tasting. Ice cold, few things are more refreshing. It’s nice to see a local company doing a great job of distilling this unappreciated spirit. Many companies merely filter or even just repackage neutral spirits distilled elsewhere as vodka, but this is from scratch, the real deal.

 


Brigham Spice Rum
Distillery 36

Description: This handsome amber rum emits an aroma of marshmallow and clove right off the bat, with some vanilla sweetness. The flavor is dry by contrast, while still showing off the spices. Clove and a bit of nutmeg are dominant with the aforementioned vanilla being a constant through-note. It’s not as creamy as it might sound, with a rich, fruity element running as another layer; subtly tropical, without being bright.

Overview: Distillery 36’s normal Brigham rum is one of my favorites, with its grassy sugarcane notes and clean finish, but I was skeptical of the spiced rum. It’s just not usually my favorite spirit to drink or mix, often too sweet or fake-tasting. I was pleasantly surprised, and with the underlying quality here, I shouldn’t have been. Their clear use of top quality spices and the excellent base rum make this imminently drinkable, though I’ll still prefer to mix it.



Uncharted Series Barrel-Rested Gin
New World Distillery

Description: This refreshing take on gin is golden or just amber from its brief time in a barrel, but interestingly, drinks more like a London dry than most aged gins. The aroma is strong pine and juniper up front with hints of mint and cardamom. The flavor is clean and dry with some light hints of oaky vanilla, but it’s not mellow. Lemongrass, grapefruit pith and some spruce round out the snappy finish.

Overview: Barrel gins are tricky, with many examples failing to balance the refreshing sharpness of the herbs with the mellowing process of the barrel. The quality of the 100-percent-corn-base spirit shows through on this one, helping bridge the gap. Being especially clean and crisp, the botanicals are barely suppressed at all by the tannins and caramels from the oak. The result is that it’s immediately ready to be sipped, and it’s mostly a shame this will get put into a mixed drink more than it should. This is a small-batch offering available only at New World Distilling in Eden, Utah.


Wasatch Blossom Utah Tart Cherry Liqeur
New World Distillery

Description: This elegant, etched-glass bottle is worth picking up on its own, even without the remarkable liqueur inside. The deep-ruby liquid pours just a little viscous, but not syrupy, with hints of garnet at its lightest. The aroma is deep cherrywood, some gradd, chokecherries and bark, really allowing the earthiness of the cherries to mix well with the agave elements. Sweet, but not cloying, almost tickling your tongue with its depth.

Overview: Being stronger than your average liqeur (64 proof as apposed to 40 proof), allows Wasatch Blossom to hold its own in a mixed context better than most. That being said, it’s delightful to just sip, neat or on the rocks. New World has again chosen wisely by pairing the local Montmorency cherries with agave spirit base and agave nectar to sweeten. The naturally earthy flavors blend together well and create something unique. The tartness of the fruit is lost, so make sure to add some acidity when mixing.

(L–R) Shylo’s Dwaine Blackwell, Jon Nunez, Trent Campbell, top, and Fisher co-owners Tommy Fisher Riemondy, Tim Dwyer, Colby Frazier and Steven Brown, bottom, combine brewery and food truck forces. Photo: johnnybetts.com.

Call me selfish, but I want the city I live in to be the coolest. I’ve traveled all over the country, usually enjoying healthy portions of local beer and food, and I greedily covet any given ethnic cuisine, restaurant concept or beer style that I can’t find an equivalent for back home in Utah. One such trend that I’ve envied and craved over all others was the pairing of small-brewery taprooms with a rotating cast of food trucks to create casual but exciting social experiences. The brewery handles the location and the beer while the trucks satisfy patrons’ hunger with an ever-changing lineup of foods. This model has sprung up everywhere, from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas, and people are embracing the diversity of options it provides. A. Fisher Brewing Company opened its doors to a ravenously thirsty public in February and is the first to attempt this model in Salt Lake.

Fisher Brewing Company opened its doors to a ravenously thirsty public in February and is the first to attempt the model of incorporating a food truck to satisfy patrons' hunger. Photo: johnnybetts.com.
Fisher Brewing Company opened its doors to a ravenously thirsty public in February and is the first to attempt the model of incorporating a food truck to satisfy patrons’ hunger. Photo: johnnybetts.com.

One reason for this direction, says co-owner Tim Dwyer, is a lower overhead cost. “The food truck is our kitchen,” he says over the bustling noises of the crowded taproom. It’s a Thursday evening, the after-work crowd has the bartenders busy pouring beer, and a line has formed at the the Chow Truck parked out front. “We had no restaurant experience and no desire to do that,” says co-owner Tommy Fisher Riemondy. “Plus, more brewpubs end up failing than ever succeed.” The team of four friends responsible for Fisher travelled when they were planning their brewery and have seen this model succeed. Examples like Renegade Brewing Co. in Denver, Colorado, and Marble Brewery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, helped to make it clear that “there was some other way of doing this than being a brewpub,” says co-owner and Head Brewer Colby Frazier. Another reason is the freedom: “We wanted to focus on one thing and do it as well as we can,” says co-owner Steve Brown, “and none of us have kitchen experience.”

But just because it had succeeded elsewhere doesn’t mean that it was easy. Aside from the unique alcohol laws in Utah, there were and still are plenty of challenges. “Trying to explain it to bankers and investors was hard,” says Frazier. “‘Can I buy it at Smith’s?’ or ‘So you’ll have a restaurant?’ were questions we got a lot. It was hard to convey to people who hadn’t seen it out of state.” Frazier also handles booking the food-truck schedule, and in the beginning, it was unclear how it would work. “[Food trucks asked us], ‘How many people do you expect?’ and we really didn’t know,” he says, “but they’ve all been super reliable, and when they weren’t sure about us yet, they still came. They didn’t make us guarantee anything.” Now that Fisher is open, the learning curve continues. “The waste, the styrofoam and plastic really bummed me out,” says Brown. The taproom has started providing washable service items to the food trucks to attempt to minimize the waste. “We’re still figuring out what works—plastic baskets, trays, silverware,” Brown says.

The evident hard work and attention to detail at Fisher is paying off as well. Over several visits, I spoke to many customers, and for most, it was not their first visit. Waiting in line at the Chow Truck to order tacos, Fisher guest Erin Bertram says, “Coming straight from work, having the option of food that’s local is great.” Paul Vatterott and Lauren Gedlinske were on their fourth visit, and the diversity of food options provided by the trucks is a big incentive. “We look up who’ll be here,” says Gedlinske. “It’s always a different, rotating menu.” And that variety seems to be a large part of the charm. “We get on Instagram and check,” says Vatterott. “It’s a cool model, two small local businesses working together for mutual benefit.” Local electronic-music-producing duo Mondaine & DComplex live a few blocks away and make it in frequently. “They’re right in our ‘hood—we walked over,” says Mondaine before taking a swig of her pale ale to wash down some of the Chow Truck’s excellent calamari. DComplex says, “We’ve been here a few nights in a row. It’s a different menu every night.”

A. Fisher Brewing Company has been a runaway success so far, admittedly having trouble keeping up with the consumption of their beer, having added at least one new fermenter just two months after opening, with plans for more already. A big part of that success is the loyalty that they’ve earned by providing their customers with something that can’t be found anywhere else in Salt Lake. This model may not be tried and true here yet, but the benefits like keeping it local and keeping costs low are numerous, and perhaps the greatest is sheer variety. “It reflects the brewery, the diversity of food for a diversity of beer,” says Dwyer, and I couldn’t agree more. No longer will I covet this type of setup in other cities—now we have it here in Utah. The only question is: Where will the next one be?

Photo: Andy Fitzgerrell

We all love beer—that’s a given—and more and more, consumers are becoming interested in what goes into the making of their beer, from breweries to brewers. Yet another level deeper are the people behind those people. Since developing a passion for craft beer after her first bottle of Mirror Pond Pale, Acacia Coast has been getting more involved and now works for the Brewers Association (B.A.)—a trade group whose membership includes over 70 percent of the American brewing industry. As the State Brewer Association’s Coordinator, she is a liaison between the B.A. and the 75-plus state guilds and local associations across the country. Utah’s guild is only five years old, but that isn’t unusual—the median age of all guilds is six years, most starting around 2009. Every guild has a similar mission statement: to protect, promote and educate about craft beer, and Coast advises them on what the B.A. can do to help.

SLUG: Why is a state or area having a brewer’s guild important to those breweries and the local consumers?

Acacia Coast: Guilds are the front lines of defense for small-brewery businesses. Each brewer can advocate on their own behalf to legislators, but when they come together with a unified voice and demonstrate the camaraderie of a community who is in solidarity about an issue, the impact speaks a lot louder. There’s never been a more exciting time to be a craft brewer, but with the increased attention comes increased scrutiny, so it’s critical that each brewer engage with their guild to keep the industry strong and flourishing. Tax increases, anti-alcohol coalitions, ill-informed legislators, limited access to market, regulatory agencies and a lack of education are all problems, and a guild speaks with one voice to defend all these small businesses.

SLUG: People often complain about the beer laws in Utah. Can you share some challenges our brewers and guild face?

Coast: The guild [has] tried to put forward an effort to add input and be part of the process, but small brewers continued to get steamrolled by our theocracy. Utah wants to attract tourism, business and revenue, but we have this taboo where we lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year from this perception that we practically still live in covered wagons—we appear inhospitable. … We can’t bring beer in without the DABC approving, not a single brand. The regulation stifles the tourism industry, stifles the brewing industry and confounds the rest of modern America to no end.

SLUG: What can consumers do to support their guild and local breweries?

Coast: Show up at the fundraising events, such as Fluid Art, a spring beer-and-art-pairing event [that happened] May 27 at UMOCA. Drink local beer, support local industry [and] put your dollars back into your community instead of into the pockets of mega-conglomerates owned by foreign interests. Reinvest in the future of your community.

SLUG: You’ve recently moved to Utah. How do you like our beer scene?

Coast: The first guild meeting I went to was here, and I was astounded. I had the same pre-conceived notions that the majority of the [American] public has. I was blown away by the high quality of the beer and the kindness and generosity of the industry.

SLUG: What do you see as the future for craft beer in general, and for Utah’s scene and guild specifically?

Coast: In general, I see a great importance in serving local communities. … Craft beer is growing. Full-flavored beer is becoming more desired by the entire world. … I see potential in the changes in legislation, and I foresee growth with more support and more education. The importance of brewers inviting their policymakers into the breweries—educating them on the business of beer—is nowhere more critical than it is here in Utah. Building a culture of advocacy is an important challenge. Brewers didn’t get in the business to be active in government, but it’s the most important responsibility small brewers have to help elevate the industry.

With an ever-changing legislative landscape come new obstacles around every corner. The B.A. works at the federal level, but Coast advises guilds at the state level, and there’s still plenty to be done. It’s also our responsibility as consumers to speak up and voice our opinion, so support your local brewery! Check out brewersassociation.org and utahbrewersguild.com for more information on what you can do right here in Utah.

Sugar House Distillery

Photo: Michael Portanda

When James Fowler started looking seriously at what it would take to get a new Salt Lake City– based distillery off the ground, there wasn’t a lot of financial support coming his way. “Banks didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says. “There’s no guarantee of getting a permit, so it’s huge risk on their part. I decided I would self-fund the project. That’s when I decided to start small.” Small is exactly right. Sugar House Distillery is based in a humble industrial space in South Salt Lake that houses their still and fermentation spaces, ingredient and barrel storage and a tiny retail shop selling their small-batch spirits—Vodka, Silver Rum, barrel-aged Gold Rum and Malt Whisky so far—directly to the public. Keeping the scale of production limited allows Sugar House to pay a lot of attention to each spirit in this small product line, and the commitment to quality is clear in tasting their spirits.

Before starting to follow his dream of opening a distillery, owner Fowler was a regional representative for the chemical industry and had been homebrewing for 20 years on the side. His job took him to breweries and distilleries, and he often got to see a side that the rest of the public didn’t. “When I realized how similar brewing and distilling were, well, I just got more and more interested in the whiskey,” he says. “The still is just such a magical and beautiful piece of equipment—it was so intriguing.” Head Distiller Eric Robertson felt that allure as well—he got his start in the warehouse at High West Distillery in 2009 after building ski lifts for 15 years. “I started homebrewing when I was 18,” he says. “I needed a change of pace and responded to a classified ad for a warehouse assistant. I then worked my way up to Senior Distiller.” He came on board at Sugar House in 2014, and with the addition of Jake Wood, former brewer and sales manager at Shades of Pale Brewing, the team was complete. Wood had been trying to get into the industry for as long as he could remember, and the progression from Shades of Pale to Sugar House was natural to him. “I moved from Park City down to Salt Lake and met James, and we hit it off,” he says.

One of the unique things happening at Sugar House is that every one of their spirits starts with a fermentation. This is where house-cultured yeast converts the raw ingredients into ethanol, which is then purified and concentrated during the distillation process. Their vodka starts out as a mash of 100-percent Delta, Utah–grown wheat, and the difference becomes evident in the flavor—slightly sweet with a hint of grain and quite clean. “It’s a lot of work to get the vodka where it is,” says Fowler, but he could just as easily be speaking about any of the spirits. Their use of 100-percent molasses for their rums results in an extremely complex flavor in the Silver: Brown sugar and hints of vanilla combine with dark fruit, like fig and prune, which then become compounded by the aging period in barrels to produce the Gold.

The Malt Whisky itself is another testament to the singular drive for quality that the Sugar House team nurtures. Many customers aren’t quite sure what they’re getting when they first buy the Malt Whisky because it doesn’t readily fit into any of the classic whiskey categories. “When we did the first release, we sold 700 bottles, and 700 people came in thinking they were buying bourbon,” says Fowler. Bourbon is the most common American whiskey, and while Sugar House does have one aging, their current whisky is wholly different. Rich and malty with a hint of sweetness and a fresh oak tang, they call it an American Malt Whisky, a style they hope becomes its own category in time. “It’ll get recognized,” says Robertson. Another group of people had only seen “malt” listed on Scotch whisky labels and were surprised when the product wasn’t peaty. “That’s what’s nice about being able to show people around here,” says Fowler, referencing the regular tours of the facility that Sugar House offers, which give them a chance to explain their products and process to customers.

There’s four products to show off right now—the Vodka, Malt Whisky, Silver Rum and the barrel-aged Gold Rum—and more are on the way. A fully fermented and distilled in-house bourbon is aging in barrels right now, and at the time of writing, 100-percent rye mash was fermenting away in preparation for distillation into whiskey. There are few limits on what these three men can accomplish. “We want to stick to traditional methods,” says Robertson, “but not be bound by them—to put our own twist on them, that’s exciting.” Controlling everything they do from grain or cane to glass definitely leaves its mark on the product. They ferment the mashes, propagate yeast and are always tweaking the still, always looking to improve. “We want to set the tone for distillers in the region,” says Wood. “We want to see people just as dedicated to the craft, keeping the bar just as high.” Even though it isn’t the quickest or easiest way, you can taste the value of their hard work in the spirits.