Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Never mind that he's descended from a long line of brewers. Jim Koch was not an obvious candidate to help launch the craft beer movement when he founded Boston Beer Company in 1984. The guy had three Harvard degrees. He was working as a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. "Kind of nerdy, to be honest with you," is how he is described by his co-founder Rhonda Kallman, who has blue eyes and red hair (it was brown back then) and isn't embarrassed to admit, "Bars are my natural habitat."
If Koch was going to make this work, he needed Kallman, a community college grad and a secretary at BCG who was moonlighting as a bartender. "I would come in sometimes a little late and sometimes a little hung over, but I got the job done," Kallman says. "He recognized something in me that was missing in him. So he asked me to help him start a beer company."
Kallman said no thanks. "She had a good job and an opportunity to be the administrative head of the New York office," Koch recalls. "She wasn't sure this thing was gonna work. But I was somewhat persistent, and I remember when she finally changed her mind. We were at a bar at [Boston's] Faneuil Hall. "I told her I had never failed at anything in my life that was really important to me. And this is really important."
So it was that Kallman invested her life savings--$5,000--for a 1 percent stake in Koch's new venture. And together they gave the world Sam Adams. They shared an office for 15 years. Kallman has "energy, drive, motivation, and commitment," Koch says. "Plus, she's just a really fun person."
In 1994, Inc. recognized Kallman as one of America's 25 most fascinating entrepreneurs. Some of the other names on that list? Jeff Bezos, Tom Stemberg, and Steve Jobs.
Now Kallman is back with a new venture, Boston Harbor Distillery, set to open later this spring. She's been planning this for three years. Together with her partners, she's in for $2 million. (That includes everything, she says, "the branding, the build-out, the equipment, the people, the dreaming.") Her goal: to do for craft spirits what she and Koch did for craft beer, and so make Boston doubly proud. "We'll be known for great whiskey pretty soon," Kallman vows.
Caffeinated beer goes flat
Kallman is due for a win. When she left Boston Beer, in 1999, she sold all her stock. It was priced in the single digits then; now it's around $300. "So I'd like to kill myself," Kallman says, forcing a laugh. "But instead, I've decided I'm just gonna make it again."
In 2001, she teamed with Joseph Owades of Miller Lite fame to found New Century Brewing. Among its offerings was a concoction called Moonshot, a caffeinated beer. Moonshot's prospects dimmed after the FDA sent New Century a letter in 2010 warning of "adverse behavioral outcomes" and "central nervous system effects if a consumer drank one or more containers of your product." Kallman thinks the government was out of line--"that was an FDA bullshit thing!"--and maybe she has a point. I mean, why drink beer spiked with caffeine unless you were hoping for an adverse behavioral outcome?
New Century did not last. "But I learned so much," Kallman says. "I'm really excited to take all those years of experience and culminate it here." And saying so, she opens her arms to indicate her surroundings.
She's standing on the floor of a cavernous 176-year-old factory in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. When Kallman first saw the place, it was little more than a brick shell and had been vacant for decades. At the moment, it remains a construction site, as workers scramble to complete a top-to-bottom renovation. But it won't be long now. And when the job is finished, it'll all be right here, everything under one giant, wood-beamed roof: a distillery, a bottling plant, a bar, a souvenir shop, an e-commerce hub, and Kallman's office.
A tippler's history of Boston
Artisanal booze is as much about the story as it is about what's in the bottle. This old building helps Kallman tell hers. The original tenant was one Silas Putnam. He manufactured curtain rollers, then switched to machine-made horseshoe nails, which he advertised with the slogan "Be good to your horse." The horseless carriage drove Putnam out of business, but his name survives. It's going on the label of Kallman's $60-a-bottle (comparable to a decent import), chocolate-roasted single malt, Putnam New England Whiskey.
Then came George Lawley & Son, shipbuilder. Lawley built two 19th-century America's Cup yachts--the Puritan and the Mayflower--and later supplied landing craft to the Navy during World War II. Good seafaring name, Lawley. Perfect for Lawley's New England Spirit, a rum-like concoction distilled from molasses and maple syrup.
Seymour's Ice Cream was here next, until the 1980s. Its best-known frozen treat was the peanut-topped Nutty Buddy cone (not to be confused with the NuttyBuddy jockstrap insert). Another fine name--Seymour, not Nutty Buddy--appropriate for Seymour's Coffee Liqueur, a sweet blend of rye, maple syrup, and roasted coffee.
What unites the brands is something "quintessentially New England," says Kallman's co-founder, Corey Bunnewith (who also has blue eyes and red hair). "We call it 'refined grittiness.' It's hard to explain until people are in here drinking with us." Which, thanks to the company's Massachusetts farm-distillery license, is permitted. Bunnewith promises a seasonal cocktail menu featuring the full line of Boston Harbor spirits mixed with local bitters, shrubs, and produce. He wants a setting where novice drinkers can "experience authenticity," he says, and begin to acquire a more refined taste in spirits than you might get from, say, shooting a flavored whiskey like Fireball. They'll start "deep" with distribution in Massachusetts and Rhode Island only, says Bunnewith, then go "wide."
Booze being born
Kallman leads the way into the back half of the building, beyond a glass wall, to the distillery proper. There are big brass pots in here, and nests of piping, and pallets stacked high with bags of Minnesota barley. It's warm like an incubator; there's booze being born. "That's where you put the grain in," she says, pointing, "and that's where you make the mash. Then it goes into these fermenters, and then you add the yeast. The yeast eats the sugars and discharges and creates CO2 and alcohol, and then it goes through the still and they run it up to a high proof and capture all the vapors. Then they put it into a barrel, and then into a bottle."
A bottle like the one she's pouring from now, as we sample some test product. "I've been in this business my whole life," Kallman says, her eyes sparkling. "I work really hard and play really hard. And when you can put those two together and make it a lifestyle, that hits on every cylinder." To the lifestyle!