As far as origin stories go, Corsair Distillery’s follows a familiar pattern: two inventive friends with big ideas experimenting in a garage. Andrew Webber and Darek Bell founded Corsair in 2008 with the goal of producing atypical spirits. But they met with obstacles—notably, the fact that most distilling wasn’t legal in Tennessee when Corsair launched.
At the time, Webber and Bell were making fuel ethanol for home use and quickly realized they liked whiskey more. Since Nashville prohibited the operation of a commercial distillery, Corsair’s first facility opened in nearby Bowling Green, Kentucky. Meanwhile, Webber and Bell worked to change the law in Tennessee and eventually succeeded, opening the company’s second distillery in Nashville in 2010.
The partners tried to raise money, but potential investors offered input like suggesting they distill medical alcohol. “There’s probably great money in that field, but if you don’t love what you do, life is short,” Bell says. He and his partner had a clear vision of creating unique spirits from uncommon ingredients, so when other backers urged them to make traditional Tennessee whiskey or Bourbon, they decided to go it alone. “We never actually raised any money,” Bell explains. “We scraped and shoestringed to get off the ground, and maybe that’s for the best. We might have played it safe.”
Corsair now operates three distilleries, after adding a second Nashville location earlier this year. The company also runs a farm in Bells Bend, Tennessee, where it grows barley, rye and wheat and malts grain on-site. Corsair has an expansive range of products, some of which are released as one-offs, while others are integrated into the core or seasonal lineup. Among them are Artisan gin ($36 a 750-ml. bottle), Red absinthe ($60), Vanilla Bean vodka ($30), Spiced rum ($31) and a slew of whiskies, including Triple Smoke American malt whiskey ($50), Quinoa whiskey ($57), Ryemageddon rye whiskey ($54), Buck Yeah buckwheat whiskey ($57), Oatrage oat whiskey ($57) and the hop-flavored malt whiskey Centennial ($60), among others.
From Beer To Spirits
Webber and Bell spent years as home brewers before venturing into distilling, and their experience with the evolving craft beer movement inspires many of Corsair’s creations. “In the brewing world, there’s this explosion of creativity,” Bell says. “People have crazy ideas and try them out.” He wanted to take a more experimental approach with spirits. “I came into the world of distilling and realized that people did things the way they’d always been done,” Bell explains. “They weren’t taking a lot of risks. With an aged product, there’s a much longer learning feedback loop, whereas with beer you can quickly tell if it’s good or not.”
The partners also wanted their products to stand out from the spirits typically made in Tennessee and Kentucky. “We couldn’t be unique just as a craft distillery because there are so many distilleries here,” Bell says. “So we looked at how we brewed beer using different grains, such as oats. There’s a very limited history of using oats in spirits, and we asked why. We decided to brew one of our favorite beers, an oatmeal stout, and then distill it. It made for a really unique whiskey.” Corsair’s Oatmeal Stout whiskey debuted in 2011 as an experimental bottling. Earlier this year, the company released Oatrage, a whiskey distilled from malted oats and barley, as a seasonal offering.
Corsair’s size makes its wide-ranging experimentation possible. Since production volumes are small, the company can afford to try out new ideas. “That’s part of the value proposition,” Bell says. “We’re taking chances in ways that the big companies can’t. If they’re not going to sell 50,000 cases, it’s not worth doing. For us, if we do 400 cases, we’re happy.” In addition to spirits, Corsair occasionally produces limited-release beers.
When Corsair opened seven years ago, craft distilling was still in its infancy, and Bell went to Scotland to train at Bruichladdich Distillery. These days, he and other employees serve as instructors at the American Distilling Institute, the American Craft Spirits Association and Louisville, Kentucky’s Moonshine University. After years of trailblazing new whiskey styles, the team has lots of experience to share. “When you’re working with a new grain, you can’t call anybody if you have questions,” Bell says. With novice distillers in mind, he’s written two books. “Alt Whiskeys,” published in 2011, discusses making spirits from alternative grains, like quinoa, amaranth, millet and spelt, while “Fire Water,” published in 2013, outlines Corsair’s experiences smoking malt with different kinds of wood and plants, including crabapple, lemon wood and willow bark.
Smoky whiskies have become a cornerstone of Corsair’s portfolio, thanks to an early discovery made by the company. “If you look at the magazines, the older the whiskey, the better it scores,” Bell explains. “But an interesting short circuit is that whiskies tend to score much better for their age if they’re heavily smoked. That realization was a huge breakthrough for us.” In 2009, Corsair released Triple Smoke American malt whiskey, a product that incorporated malted barley smoked using three different materials: cherry wood, beechwood and Scottish peat. “In competitions, you’re judged on the nose, the palate and the finish,” Bell says. “We found that mixing various types of smoked barley made the whiskey strong in all three areas. It creates a much richer spirit.” Triple Smoke was named “Artisan Whiskey of the Year” by Market Watch sister publication Whisky Advocate in 2013 and has been the company’s best-selling product for several years.
The experimentation led to another obstacle: Corsair frequently had trouble convincing the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to approve its labels. At the time, the TTB considered only wheat, rye, barley and corn as cereal grains from which whiskey could be made. “For our quinoa whiskey, the TTB suggested we call it quinoa grain neutral spirit or quinoa-flavored rum,” Bell says. “It was a very strange process in the beginning. Now things have changed, and the TTB is pretty used to it. There are a lot of other alternative grain whiskies out there.”
Educating consumers has also taken time. With no advertising budget, Corsair focuses on social media. “Our products are unusual and get their own press,” Bell says. “Social media has been a game changer. It’s a way to build a devout audience and have constant communication.” The brand’s distinctive label—featuring three striding men in suits with a black-and-white color scheme—adds to recognition.
Retailers and on-premise operators are helping to build Corsair’s fan base. At The Party Source in Bellevue, Kentucky, assistant spirits buyer Tiernan Hogan says the staff enjoys introducing Corsair to customers. “It’s really nice to have something that’s off the beaten path,” he explains. “Customers expect us to offer unusual brands like Corsair. We have a knowledgeable staff and we like to have such excellent products to recommend.” Hogan adds that sampling plays a big role in the brand’s sales, and The Party Source is currently reconfiguring its spirits library to offer tastes of the products it carries. “For consumers, it’s a gamble to buy something they haven’t tried yet,” he says. “If they can taste before they buy, that’s a beautiful thing.”
David King, owner and chef at Oakland, California’s Hutch bar and kitchen, agrees. “We do a lot of education,” he says. Hutch offers Corsair products in whiskey flights, such as in The Bootlegger ($15 for three 1-ounce pours), which features the distillery’s Wry Moon unaged whiskey. “Corsair is doing something different and really cool, so it’s a pleasure to share with guests,” King explains.
Corsair’s focus on exploring untapped ingredients and new flavor profiles has resonated in the mixology scene. “They put an original twist on everything they make,” says Dan Searing, a mixologist and co-owner of Room 11 restaurant and bar in Washington, D.C. “You always get something different than what’s typical of the category, and it inspires creative energy and interesting ideas.” For a recent Distilled Spirits Council of the United States event, Searing created the Kentucky S’more cocktail using Corsair Triple Smoke whiskey, Medley Brothers Bourbon, and a syrup made from honey, vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa. “The rich, smoky complexity of Triple Smoke is really different than a Scotch, so it pairs well with another American whiskey,” he adds.
Bell explains that Corsair initially targeted the mixology community with its products. “Bartenders are such important influencers,” he says. “Many don’t stay with the same bar for very long. They’re also really knowledgeable and right there on the front lines talking to consumers. If a bartender is excited about something, he or she will transfer that excitement to others and even take the brand to other bars when switching jobs.”
As Corsair has matured from a rules-breaking startup to one of the leading craft distilleries in the country, the company has been forced to expand more rapidly than anticipated, resulting in several facilities spread across two states. “We didn’t think we would burn through so many barrels and so much space as quickly as we did, and it’s created a lot of headaches in terms of growth,” Bell admits. “Space has been a limiting factor.”
Webber manages the bulk of Corsair’s day-to-day operations and finances, while Bell’s wife, Amy Lee Bell, handles marketing and public relations. The company employs a host of experienced distillers, brewers, maltsters and others to run its many facilities, and everyone pitches in wherever help is needed. “When you’re a small business, the hats run together,” Darek Bell says. “Wherever there’s a fire, we all just run over there and throw sand on it as quickly as we can. We’ve got some really good people here, and that’s given us enough confidence to make the whole thing work at all these different facilities.”
Recently, Bell’s primary focus has been overseeing the setup of the second Nashville distillery, located in the city’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. Now that the project is nearly complete, he’s turning his attention to a third Nashville distillery, also in Wedgewood-Houston and scheduled to open in 2016. That expansion will bring Corsair’s production capacity to 50,000 cases. The company hopes that with three distilleries in Nashville, one in Bowling Green and one at the farm in Bells Bend, demand will be satisfied for at least five years.
The farm distillery, which is slated for completion in 2017, will allow Corsair to branch out into another category of beverage alcohol: brandy. The company planted grapes there this past spring and will install winemaking equipment, along with an antique Cognac still. The team has already begun distilling grapes and apples at its first Nashville distillery and will release an apple eau-de-vie this fall. Corsair also plans to release wines since most of the grapes it’s growing are suited to both purposes.
“This is a 10-year project,” Bell says. “It takes four years just to get the vines up to 100 percent and then six years once you start laying down brandy. After starting Corsair with whiskey, we’ve got a good feel for how to handle cash flow while aging product.” In fact, Corsair has been shifting its maturation processes for whiskey as well, allowing the spirits to age longer and slowly transitioning from smaller barrels to the standard 53-gallon size. The company hopes to produce more ingredients in-house, with a goal of sourcing 20 percent of the grains needed for its smoked whiskies from the farm next year. In addition to the current lineup, Corsair is adding a pecan-smoked whiskey and Wildfire, a hickory-smoked whiskey, this fall. Both will retail at $44.99 a 750-ml. bottle.
Corsair products will be sold in 37 states by year-end, and the expansions underway will likely lead to nationwide distribution. But the company doesn’t need to worry about distinguishing itself. “With so many spirits options nowadays, it’s great to have something that really stands out,” says Room 11’s Searing. “It’s easy for bartenders and consumers to understand what makes Corsair’s spirits different.”