Lessons from a rogue whiskey distiller

June 20, 2013, 3:34 PM UTC

Prohibition may have ended a while ago, but the long arm of the law still affects small brewers and distillers. In Tennessee, for example, it’s illegal to distill whiskey at home.

But entrepreneur Darek Bell is raising his own whiskey rebellion. For his day job, he’s vice president and a partner at Nashville-based Bell & Associates Construction, but his true calling is making craft whiskey, still an art of the occult in some Southern regions.

Bell, 39, owns a company called Corsair Artisan Distillery, which makes spirits right in the middle of Nashville, Tenn. He doesn’t just make your typical Tennessee whiskey either — Corsair has pumped out flavors such as quinoa whiskey, barrel-aged gin, and pumpkin spice moonshine. In February, Corsair’s Triple Smoke won Whisky Advocate’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year. It’s a smooth liquor that tastes like camping.

At the Nashville distillery, Bell took some time from thinking up new flavors to talk to Fortune about his dream drink and how to recruit talent for a (partially) illegal trade.

How do you find great employees when so few people know how to distill craft whiskey?

It’s really difficult because there’s not a standard distilling school where you can just go and hire the top three candidates. You kind of have to grow them. And because distilling is illegal, it’s not something that they can practice. We’re mostly having to find people who have a wine-making background or a strong home-brewing background. We have to teach the distilling component.

What are some of the challenges particular to distilling craft whiskey?

It’s an expensive product. When you’re making expensive product, you want people to be creative, but — and I think this is part of the reason why whiskey has been so conservative — when you’re aging something for six, eight, 10 years, you don’t want to screw it up.

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But from the get-go, our mantra has been, “Let’s be very different and stand out with our products.” If I just compete directly with Jack Daniels, they can make it cheaper than me, they can advertise better than me, but what they can’t do is innovate easily.

So what’s an example of a really innovative product you made?

We have a beer called Rasputin, and one day we were like, well screw it, let’s just distill it and see what it tastes like. And it ended up being a really amazing tasting, hopped whiskey.

It was just a way to coalesce around an idea that we were all in love with and we were all like, “Why has this never been made into a whiskey?” This is a great beer that home brewers and beer nerds are passionate about.

Do most whiskey makers see every beer as a possible spirit?

No, and that’s the strange thing to me because whiskey is distilled beer. To me, it’s garbage in, garbage out, so the better the thing is that you put into your still, the better the final product’s going to be. I think that for a long time, a lot of distillers were trying to think like a commodity and buy the cheapest grain, which is corn, and make something out of that. But for us, we’ve tried to ask “What’s the most expensive grain and how can we make a really refined beer that’s going to make a really unusual whiskey?”

When I was home-brewing, the large American corporate lagers were just these atrocious disasters, and there was this sudden, massive explosion of creativity happening in craft beer. I’m waiting for that to happen in craft whiskey, and for the most part, it really hasn’t.

What have you learned from making whiskey that you couldn’t learn from any other business?

It’s taught me patience. When you have an aged product and when you have so much red tape, you have to be very patient. It’s also taught me to just fucking do it, you know? Sometimes you have to drag people into the next paradigm.

Speaking of, if you had a blank check and unlimited time, what whiskey would you make?

I might take a challenging spirit and show how far you can push it. Or maybe I would take something that’s already here and refine it. I would like to take Tennessee whiskey and show people that if we use blue corn instead of normal corn, it’s going to have more depth. Or instead of just using a little bit of rye and a little bit of barley, you could use some of these alternative grains.

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So maybe it would be, make a $300 bottle of Tennessee whiskey that’s very complicated but still refined and very unusual, and, of course, still within the realm of what Tennessee whiskey is, but you’ve pushed it as far as possible to make it as great of a product as it could be.

That sounds great.

Let’s do it!