By: Esther Rubio-Sheffrey
Once upon a time, alcohol was illegal. Conservative and religious organizations, predominantly the Womenâ€™s Christian Temperance Union, succeeded in persuading politicians to enact the Constitutionâ€™s 18th Amendment, which prohibited everything from the production to consumption of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. There are many parallels between todayâ€™s war on drugs and prohibition.
For example, prohibition was impossible to regulate, increased crime dramatically, made gangsters like Al Capone infamous, and wellâ€¦ it was simply foolish because like it or not, it was what the majority of Americans wanted to consume. An in-depth dissertation can easily be written on the subject, but this is not the time or the place. This story is about a new American distillery that combines the nostalgia of the Prohibition era, with satire and humor, to produce vodka that is extremely smooth and rivaled by few.
Prohibition Comes Full Circle
Prohibition Distillery opened its doors on January 16, 2009, the same date that prohibition began in 1920. Its two owners, John Walsh and Brian Facquet, see their brand as a celebration of the rebellious spirit that defied and challenged societyâ€™s constraints during the 1920â€™s era. Their marketing and branding is extremely creative.
When alcohol was outlawed, it made it that much cooler to drink, and saloons, as bars were known back then, saw record profits. They were able to provide their patrons with drinks thanks to bootleggers, who like marijuana growers, risked imprisonment to create a product the masses could enjoy. Prohibition also had loopholes. You could, for example, get a doctor to prescribe alcohol to help calm your nerves. Thankfully, prohibition ended with the 21st amendment. So naturally, Walsh and Facquet named their product Bootlegger Vodka 21. Applied on a clear bottle, the name is inscribed on a prescription label from the â€˜20s.
Some of their ads feature slogans like, â€œGoes down easier than my 401kâ€ and â€œdepression proofâ€ with black and white images from the â€˜20s. Creativity aside, both men soon realized that financing and starting a distillery just as financial giants like Lehman Brothers were falling apart, kick-starting our current recession was not going to be easy.
â€œWe have a couple of thousands of dollars, and we are in an arena with the biggest guys in the world who have millions,â€ Facquet said. â€œWe canâ€™t spend against them, but we can work hard and keep our heads up and try to get through whatever obstacle and challenge comes our way. There is nothing else to be but problem solvers.â€
Both men left corporate jobs to pursue this dream, which originally was the idea of Walshâ€™s sister, who was casually brainstorming around the kitchen table with a friend for the name of a speakeasy themed bar. â€œJohn came in from the backyard to grab some juice boxes for his kids, and off the top of his head said, â€˜I would name the bar Prohibition and serve Bootlegger vodka,â€™â€ Facquet explained. â€œA couple of weeks later we ran into each other on the bus, and he asked me to meet to discuss his idea about a liquor company. When we met up, I fell in love with the idea and right away gave him my word that I was in.â€
Although Facquetâ€™s wife would later say, â€œDamn you and your word,â€ she was supportive. â€œI have a two-year old daughter and being on the road and away from them is tough.Â I probably would not have done it without her support, but she didnâ€™t stop me because she knew that if I didnâ€™t do it, it would be one of those things I would regret 15 years from now,â€ Facquet explained.
Both men knew nothing of the distillery process, but dived in head first, soaking up as much knowledge as possible. They found a distillery in the Hudson Valley that allowed them to use their facility and got to work. About 60 batches later, they sipped on a vodka they were happy with and began bottling up their first batch to serve at parties and charitable functions. â€œEveryone feels a little more charitable after having a couple of drinks,â€ Facquet said, adding that they made no profit from those functions. All they asked in return was that those who tasted it provide feedback.
To gauge if they were on the right track, they sent their initial recipe to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and won a Silver Medal. â€œWhen we got it, we were like, â€˜Holy crap, we canâ€™t believe we got this,â€™â€ Facquet said. â€œWe showed it to our wives and asked, â€˜Should we keep doing this?â€™â€ The answer was yes, but not completely satisfied, they continued to tweak the recipe.
Nine months later, they were awarded the gold medals at the 2010 New York International Spirits Competition and an â€œExceptional 90-95 Ratingâ€ from the esteemed Beverage Testing Institute. For the non-vodka aficionado, that is a rating predominantly given to Russian vodkas, and a rating that familiar brands like Ketel One, Absolut and Belvedere have yet to receive.
Although they are still on the road at spirit festivals and competitions nationwide, they are no longer delivering their product from the back of their cars. Prohibition Distillery has earned enough to hire a distributing company, and future plans include their own distillery, a storefront with a tasting room, plus the addition of rums, whiskeys, and gins. For now, their focus remains on creating high-quality vodka made from corn.
â€œTrust your gut, that is the biggest lesson we have learned,â€ Facquet said. â€œWe ran into so many people who would say things like, â€˜I have 30 years in the business,â€™ and would want you to do things a certain way. You have to respect what people did before you, but I donâ€™t believe that just because someone did something one way then it is the only way. I guess it is the bootlegging mindset, but when we have gone against the grain, we have ended up being right.â€
Perhaps one day when future generations learn that marijuana was once criminalized and illegal, a young entrepreneur or grower will create a â€œprohibitionâ€ strain or open a cafÃ© that creatively looks back on our era with satire and humor, and give its patrons the option of buying Dumanis dime bags or smoking from a Clinton inhaler. Until then, the spirit of defiance is alive and well and available in a clear bottle, and trust me, it goes down very smooth.
Buying Bootlegger Vodka
Currently, it is mostly available on the East Coast, but contact Facquet and Walsh through their website to discuss shipping options. A few bars in town, however, have already discovered its quality. You can purchase Bootlegger Vodka from downtownâ€™s Prohibition Bar, at the Navy Bar, or the PB Shore Club. Bartenders at these establishments are mixing it up and serving it straight.
Facquet recommends drinking it on the rocks, the way you would drink a scotch or a fine whiskey. Having tasted it both as a drink and on the rocks, I would tend to agree.