Words by: Jane Ryan
"Here's the kicker," says Bill Owens, photo journalist, micro brewer, antique picker and craft distiller, who is currently charting through his epic journey in DIY beers and spirits down the end of a phone in California, "here's the kicker, it's in our DNA. You dream about it at night, it's on your mind all day and one day you just wake up and you buy the books and your DNA says I want to do this."
Doing 'this' means taking two years to set up a distillery. It means making no return on a hearty financial investment for a long time. It means legal paperwork, 18 hour days, trial and error production methods. Above all it means you could end up with nothing. Speaking with Bill, the founder of the American Distilling Institute, for the last half an hour, my notepad starting to look like a first draft of War and Peace, I can tell you that abandoning the corporate life and upping sticks to the countryside to distil whiskey is far from the romantic notion is sounds like.
And yet doted over the American landscape, and increasingly popping up across Europe, are micro brewers and distillers happy to spend 18 hours a day on a product they're intensely passionate about. It wasn't always this way though, and while small farmers might have been experimenting with their own booze for centuries they certainly didn't sell it to the world. The man who was at the forefront of this revolution? A younger Bill Owens, then a recently laid-off photo journalist in California.
Raised on a farm, Bill remembers making his first wine when he was a young man of fourteen years. By the time he was eighteen and in college he had already started home brewing. His career took a venture away from the alcohol industry however when he became a newspaper photojournalist in the '60s and '70s. By the time the '80s came, and with them the recession of that era, Bill found himself out of work.
It was at this time that a subtle change in Californian law would shape the rest of Bill's working life. Previously you could brew beer and you could sell beer but now brewers could directly sell their beer in their very own brew pubs. We might be used to this notion, indeed there are now bars where you can see the gin stills working and pubs where the smell of fermentation permeates the room but in the 1980s this was unheard of.
"I went to my CPA (certified public accountant) and said how do you get money in our society? I have no money. He gives me a limited partnership agreement, took the whiteout to the words 'almond farm' and wrote in there micro brewery. I started selling shares for $2500 and I managed to raise $92000 and built the first brew pub in America. Right now there are 4000 of them," says Bill.
The revolutionary aspect of what he had done was the huge pipeline that linked the brewery to his pub. It was the first long draft pipeline ever installed in America. Aside from this piece of technical engineering, Bill was able to purchase small three-legged tanks commonly found in England for draft beer. Sold incredibly cheaply for around $1000 in America, the early pioneers in the business were able to build a new brew house for a mere $6000.
"I'm completely self-taught in the art of everything, brewing, photography and distilling. As a student and in college I was mediocre at best, I didn't excel in maths or sports, I was just a kid who liked to drink beer. But I think to get away in life you have to have a good emotional IQ to be sociable, to respect people and to do the right thing. It was this that really helped setting up the business, more so than any taught skills."
Bill's brew pub and the change in law jump started the industry and the next fourteen years saw the business continuously grow. He built two more breweries, could bring in $1 million gross a year, had about 60 employees and yet had no money. It was the constant expanding that meant Bill was spending money as fast as he was making it. Eventually it got to the point where 18 hours a day became too much; Bill had to get out.
He sold everything and moved on with his life, away from pubs and breweries and beer. In a complete directional chance Bill started working for an antique store as a picker. He would trawl through junk yards looking for hidden gems. It was Elton John who dragged Bill back into the world of distilling.
As one of the biggest collectors of contemporary photography in the world, the famous singer has an agent who travels looking for new additions. At Bill's gallery in San Francisco the agent stumbled across Bill's phenomenal photography skills and bought $30,000 worth of his photographic prints.
"People say did you meet Sir Elton? I say of course not. The only thing that happens to me is the gallery takes half and a cheque for $15,000 came. So with this $15,000 I went to my children and said do you want any of this money? They said Dad it's yours. And so I loaded up my clothes in a cardboard box and disappeared for three months, driving across America. Previously I made a list of small distilleries so on this trip I visited breweries and distilleries across the country."
Costing his trip out to spend $100 per day, accommodation, fuel and food included, he went and saw his country through the eyes of a travelling distiller. It was upon returning home that Bill made a decisive move. Sitting in a local coffee shop he noticed a young man with an alternative look reading a book on flipping property.
"I look at him and say, all the guys I know who sell real estate have neck ties on and suits, you don't look the right role for this job, watch this, I'm going to go and form a company. So I walk out of the coffee shop, drove to city hall and started a business called the American Distilling Institute."
Not exactly, first Bill had to secure his federal ID number, then take himself off to the state of California to obtain his LLC, his license to be a business, then to the bank with $100 to open an account. At this point Bill had everything ready and yet no solid way to make money. His next idea? Have a conference.
At a friend's distillery, called St George distillery, and not to be confused with the venture of the same name in England, Bill called his craft distiller colleagues and went off to hire 65 chairs. 85 people showed up. Last year at the same event in Seattle, now ten years later, over 1000 people came.
Ever the revolutionist, Bill is now attempting to build the first ever malting floor, brewery and distillery all under one roof. Here, under the watchful eye of his sons, Bill's project will bring the grain directly from the farm into the malt house where, after malting, it will be used to brew beer and distilled into whiskey.
With the world's current fascination and renaissance in malting, Bill is confident there is a market for his project. As America's 4000 plus craft brewers attempt to get back to basics and go green they want to source their products directly from the farmer. As Bill will be selling his hand floor-malted grain he says he's certain the team will be inundated with orders.
"And we're not even talking about doing spelt or any of the exotic grains, we're just talking about doing Californian barley. Later on we can get into other grains such as wheat, rye or corn. Like I said I'm self-taught, is there anyone you can hire to come do this for, maybe one person? And they have another job so you just have to do it. And you'll correct and learn by doing it."
As for the American craft movement's latest debate on what is craft? "I just say the rising tide floods all the boats. So what is good for us who occupy 1% of the industry is good for the bigger boys and hopefully we can inspire them to do some interesting stuff. But they need to stop pretending that they are hand crafted when we know they are not, it's industrial alcohol.
"I say craft is owner-operated. I think that is the simplest way; it's owner-operated. When I went to the Owl Distillery in Belgium, the owner drove me five miles out into the country to show me the dirt that grows the wheat that goes into his whiskey. I think that kind of pride is incredible. And we will always be a small part of the process but more and more people have this awareness."
For Bill the most important thing the small industry of craft distillers can have is camaraderie. Or as he puts it, no secrets. "In the past there were secrets on how things were to be done, and most people didn't realise that a lot of gin distilleries bought a base called GNS, grain neutral spirits, we call it NGS. That was always a big trade secret and maybe the big companies were afraid people would find out they weren't distilling it themselves. Today we say be honest, if you're a blender put on your label blended. So we have three kinds of labels for the American Institute of Distilling; certified craft, certified blender and certified farm distillers."
Now this concept of small distillers uniting is being brought to London, giving Europeans the chance to embrace these start up business. As Bill puts it, he had no intention of bringing his conference to Europe until our own Simon Difford insisted there would be an audience. Last year saw 200 attendees and this year, held during London Cocktail Week, an estimated 300 people are expected with 32 booths.
"Here is a chance for a person who has that dream to walk into a room and meet people who make stills, label people, cork people, everyone in one room. It jump starts their thought process and business plan."
As for Bill's future? He's already left the industry once, could he do it again? It seems unlikely. And as he puts it "I'm already in my 70s, what retirement?"