The simple syrup at Lifted Spirits, a distillery at 1734 Cherry St. in the Crossroads Arts District, isn’t so simple. Bartender Jason Dowd, 23, has soaked fresh jalapeños in sugar water for days, then added a little vinegar to make what’s called a shrub. He adds the mixture, ice and the house vodka to a steel bar shaker, shakes well, then pours it into a glass.
But the glass isn’t so simple, either. Dowd sprinkles chips of cherry wood onto a metal tray marred by black burn marks and lights them with a torch. Once it’s burned for a few moments, he slaps a glass over it, quickly filling the glass with smoke.
He explains, “I chose cherry wood because it’s sweeter than something like hickory, and I wanted that sweetness.”
He holds a ring of pickled jalapeño carefully between his fingers and torches the edges until they’re black. That’s the garnish. The drink is unforgettably spicy-sweet, and the smell of roasted pepper and smoke turns it into a full sensory experience that’s the kind of thing you keep thinking about later.
The drink, the Wild East, is one of the bar’s top selling cocktails. It’s nothing simple.
But then, neither was Lifted Spirits’ entry into the American craft distillery movement.
Kyle Claypool, 30, had spent his whole adult life building websites. He’d also owned, and successfully sold, a digital marketing agency. He had a family.
Michael Stuckey, 33, graduated with a divinity degree from John Brown University and had spent time as a pastor as well as in real estate. He also had a family.
Claypool’s wife and Stuckey grew up together, and the two couples act as godparents to each other’s children.
What no one saw coming was the distillery that opened in the Crossroads in December.
For a few years, the two families had been taking turns hosting game board nights. Gradually, Stuckey’s beverage offerings for those occasions began arriving in jars rather than bottles. He says he “may or may not have been” studying 19th-century French distillation manuals.
So, one night, after a few glasses, Stuckey broached the subject of starting a distillery with Claypool.
Claypool’s initial response was, “There’s no way that’s happening.” But after he did some research, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. He says he liked the idea of knowing where the grain came from and knowing exactly what made up the product.
Stuckey says, “What really drew me to making spirits was that it brought people together. It wasn’t ever just about the spirit. It was about the spirit and the story. That’s why we started doing this.”
“Early in our country’s history, the still was kind of a community gathering place. The farmers brought their extra crops, and families gathered and told stories, shared a drink, and that was completely lost,” Claypool says. “Now distilling is this scary, magical, factory thing that nobody really understands at all, where it used to be it was just something the family did.”
Absinthe, for instance — one of Stuckey’s favorite spirits and soon to be in production along with their whiskey, white whiskey, gin and vodka — is shrouded in misunderstanding. From 1912 until 2007, absinthe was illegal in the United States. The defining ingredient is absinthium wormwood, which contains an oil called thujone, long said to cause hallucinations.
After distillation, thujone is only present in trace amounts. But it was much more likely the sweetness of the drink that made for easy drinking, combined with the extremely high alcohol content — 110 to 144 proof — that made it seem so dangerous.
“Absinthe that’s made according to tradition and with the right botanicals with the right balance is a really complex spirit that’s layered and accessible. I think it’s fairly beautiful. It’s akin to a well-made whiskey that’s been cellared just right,” Stuckey says.
Stuckey custom-built the still used at Lifted Spirits. It looks like a giant chrome robot about to stand up and walk away. He designed two columns each with eight porthole-type windows so visitors can see the “reflux happening on the copper plates — it’s something most distillers don’t get to see.”
Their gin makes a pass through what looks like a large broccoli steamer full of potpourri, getting its flavor from the botanicals’ vapors rather than by soaking in them. They decided to use vapor distillation for their gin rather than the more traditional maceration method, in which herbs are steeped in the gin.
Claypool points out a small table with tiny brown bottles topped with black rubber medicine stoppers. The bottles are “distillates, or essences — basically ethanol distilled with individual botanicals to capture the essence of that ingredient,” he explains.
The bottles contain juniper, orange, orris root, vanilla, licorice root and coriander — ingredients in their gin — all prepared two different ways: vapor instilled and macerated.
A drop of macerated juniper tastes like gin — that telltale evergreen flavor. A drop of vapor-instilled juniper, however, has a much lighter flavor and isn’t immediately identifiable.
Claypool describes the taste as: “lighter, more crisp, more aromatic, not so much of that heavy, bold evergreen flavor that puts people off. Ultimately, we wanted something that was bright and vibrant and fun and accessible, and then we worked around all the ingredients to figure out, how do we arrive at that?”
He says bartenders are referring to Lifted Spirits’ gin as “conversion gin,” as in, people who think they don’t like gin change their minds once they’ve tried it.
Dowd, coincidentally also a former theology student at John Brown University, says he’s enjoyed building the cocktail menu at Lifted Spirits.
“Fresh ingredients are crucial to good cocktails, and also house-made ingredients. That was one thing I wanted to make sure we do here, make sure that everything we served was house-made,” he says.
Lifted Spirits doesn’t yet have a food menu, though food trucks are frequently nearby. It does have a store that sells Lifted Spirits glasses and their spirits, as well as an events space called the Hayloft.
Stuckey says, “It wasn’t ever just about the spirit; it was about the spirit and the story. The story it tells is one of welcoming and transparency and just being together. It’s a story of bringing the still back out of the shadows and into a place where people can come and see and taste and touch and smell.”
He makes it sounds so simple.
Contact Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org or @annekniggendorf.