Reported by: Kelly Dudzik
Arkansas’ only distillery opened just a little more than a year ago, and the man behind the spirits launched his new business after becoming a casualty of Verizon’s takeover of Alltel.
Phil Brandon opened Arkansas’ only distillery in 2010. And he did it after facing a tough loss.
“When I went to Illinois to Chicago to the Benny’s Liquor store there and saw my stuff right next to the guys that I’ve admired and tried to study from afar, it’s like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I actually did that,” Brandon said.
“I was working at Alltel, enjoying life, working on a lot of projects. Alltel was doing great and then Verizon bought us and suddenly it because very apparent that a lot of jobs were going away. Mine was one of those.”
If Brandon wanted to stay in telecom, he’d have to move out of state. But he refused to leave his Arkansas roots.
“I kind of developed an appreciation for single malt scotch and whiskey in general and I discovered this new craft distilling movement that was going on throughout the country,” Brandon said.
“The more I thought about it, I was like, well, why not? I was like why aren’t there any distilleries in Arkansas?”
Brandon started researching. He wrote a business plan and financial model, then applied for and got a small business administration loan through the government’s stimulus package.
The Rock Town Distillery came to life. Brandon had a huge learning curve.
“It was a big, huge risk, you know, it was, you know, basically going to Vegas and sliding all of your chips into the middle of the table and saying I’m all in,” Brandon said.
But he had fun with it.
“I bought a lot of liquor. I tried a lot of different things, you know, started working on developing my palette,” Brandon said.
Using his background in engineering to do a lot of the contract work himself, Brandon kept costs down and opened up shop.
This is where it all begins. In a warehouse with wheat and corn from a farmer in Stuttgart.”
Brandon grinds the grains and takes them to the cooker, then the Fermenter.
He started out producing gin and vodka which do not need to be aged, then expanded to bourbon.
“When the whiskey goes in the barrel, it’s clear and at the end of six months or so, it’s a nice golden brown,” Brandon said.
And he isn’t stopping there.
“We’re making wheat whiskey now, and we’re hoping that this will be ready after the first of the year. So this is 91% wheat and 9% malted barley and it’s aged in our ex-bourbon casks.”
He bottles everything by hand, and even pours the spirits in his tasting room for guests.
“Still making it happen one day at a time,” Brandon said. “But when you decide to pursue something you want to be passionate about, working 12 hours a day isn’t so bad because it’s what you want to do.”
Especially when you can say you have launched a new career after getting laid off.
Rock Town Distillery is on East Sixth Street in Little Rock, and Brandon does tours Saturday afternoons.
Right now, you can find his spirits in six states — and they’re about to hit store shelves in three more.
“A lot of what I’ve done in my adult life has really prepared me to do this at this point,” Brandon said.
“If I hadn’t spent the last four or five years working at Alltel, I wouldn’t have had a certain set of skills that really enabled me to do a lot of the things I had to do to be able to start this.”