"I was making my own beer when, one day, I asked my wife [Emma] 'Why not whiskey or vodka?'" said Belmont's Alex Thurston.
With the hands on help of his family and friends, after navigating a Byzantine regulatory process and learning the art behind making fine spirits, Alex's idea has germinated into reality.
And despite the shutdown of the US government which has halted the issuance of labels and formulas, Damnation Alley Distillery will be open for business today, Friday, Oct. 4 at 4 p.m. and over the weekend at 7 Brighton St.
In a town which until 2007 was completely "dry," Belmont's liquor-based businesses includes two up-scale wine shops, the region's preeminent craft beer store, restaurants with liquor licenses and, now, its very own distillery producing whiskey, vodka, rum and all other types of liquors.
And Damnation Alley's five partners – a pair of Belmont couples; Baker Street's Jeremy and Jessica Gotsch and Alex and Emma Thurston (the wives are sisters) and Alison DeWolfe, the sisters' work colleague at Newbury Comics' headquarters in Brighton – are bringing the same artisan enthusiasm to spirits that an earlier generation did with craft beers.
With names such as a "Nick the Sipper" and "One Night in Bangkok" (a flavored vodka inspired by Thai sweet chili sauce) and two varieties of Massachusetts whiskey – a white whiskey in barley and wheat with each grain lending a distinctive flavors – the store's launch has been anticipated by connoisseurs of premium liquors as well as a surprising group of locals.
"[Belmont] moms have been waiting for the store to open. They've been telling me, 'I can't wait to try some,'" she told Belmont Patch.
If your perception of a distillery congers up back-wood moonshiners using a makeshift 'still who are one step ahead of the revenuers, think again. The modern distillers, many small and specialized, are becoming major players in the liquor world.
The Belmont venture comes as the world of distilled beverage has witnessed the rapid growth of small- and micro-distilleries across the country creating super premium spirits offering a higher-quality product to supply an ever increasing demand from consumers and especially high-end bars, restaurants and hotels.
But don't expect Damnation Alley to be emulating the spirits powerhouse of Jack Daniels or other major liquor manufacturer, said Jeremy Gotsch. In the back room where the "science" happens (that section of the business is closed to the public), three stainless steel still are working as nearby large vats of grains are bubbling away. The distilled liquid is draining into chemistry class glass containers while finished products are stashed away to age.
And the majority of the distilling is done on weekends and after the partners day jobs are finished.
"We're not getting rich, that's for sure," said Emma.
Damnation Alley can be viewed in terms of a microbrewery, just with spirits as the end product. In fact, Ohio-native Alex Thurston was a committed home brewer for nearly a decade until that day he pondered if the same artisan approach that successful microbrewers were using with a dedication to local and sustainable ingredients could be duplicated with liquor.
After learning the distilling art in Michigan, experimentation in his house using vegetables from the Thurston garden and a long and laborious federal regulatory process – liquor production is heavy with laws, procedures and federal taxes – the operation took shape in the former Zeff Photo Supply building, a quick walk from Baker Street.
The partners refer to the business as a "nano-distillary, but even smaller," said Alex in which only a dozen or so bottles are created in a week.
In fact, the business could sell its entire annual supply to just a handful of the growing number of bars and eateries seeking specialty spirits.
But that's not the point of the business, said Jeremy, whose day job is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From the very beginning, Damnation Alley is based on the "sustainable food" belief of using local food and farms, heirloom varieties of ingredients, best practices with the ultimate goal of "making a great product."
Operating on a grain-to-glass philosophy, the sprits made comes from local grains and produce from farms throughout Massachusetts such as Four Star Farms in Northfield, Wayland's Mainstone Farm, salt from the Wellfleet Sea Salt Company and Belmont's Urbivores, an urban homestead farm.
"This is about experimenting with, let's say a few bottles, and have fun distilling special orders.," he said, noting the business is flexible enough to distill on a whim, using an interesting ingredient ("Interesting doesn't mean its going to taste good," he said) or turn on dime to try a holiday blend: peppermint in December, pumpkin in the fall.In the future, Damnation Alley Distillery will produce other flavored vodkas, new varieties of their Massachusetts whiskey as well as other aged whiskies.
Damnation Alley is open this weekend on Friday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday, Noon to 5 p.m. Limited quantities will be available each day. Updates on availability will be posted on the business' Facebook page and Twitter account.
And about the name: Damnation Alley was the common term used for Boston’s first one-way street located between Quincy Market and the Royal Exchange Tavern where many business meetings took place. Because so many merchants attempted to travel the wrong way on the street as a short cut, loud profanity-laden tirades would break out. Also, as Alex said, it sounds "cool."