NASHUA - Andy Harthcock of Djinn Spirits had just wrapped up a tour and was pouring out samples of the new micro-distillery's signature Beat 3 white whiskey, when a man who had visited earlier in the day popped back in.
"I just have a couple more questions," he told Harthcock and his wife, Cindy. The couple, the latest pair to start making small batches of artisan spirits in New Hampshire, was happy to talk whiskey and share their experiences in the booming boutique booze business.
There were roughly 50 micro-distilleries operating across the country in 2005, according to the American Distilling Institute, which bills itself as "the voice of the craft distilling." The institute predicts between 600 and 800 small-batch distilleries could be operating by the end of next year.
New Hampshire now has three micro-distilleries: Flag Hill in Lee, Sea Hagg in North Hampton and Djinn Spirits. Distillers in Seabrook, Dover, Canterbury and Tamworth are working through the startup and permitting process, and plan to be operating by the end of this year.
Sharing experiences and advice is common with the micro-distillery industry where community trumps competition.
"There's always room for another whiskey," said Harthcock who is genuinely happy to hear someone else is mulling over a career change from banking to bourbon or from software to schnapps.
Harthcock had 30 years wrapped up in a career in tech engineering and management when he decided to quit and make whiskey. Cindy Harthcock is taking some time off from her job as an emergency room nurse to help run the business.
Operating a small-batch distillery wasn't their childhood dream.
Cindy Harthcock happened to mention to her husband that she had read an article about making potato vodka in Bon Appetit magazine.
"I just made this off-handed comment, and the next day, when I came home from work he had my pressure cooker on the stove, and he was cooking something," she said.
That experiment led to more research, a business plan and to the decision to cash in their 401(k) account and launch Djinn Spirits.
Like the micro-brewers who came before them, craft distillers foresee strength in numbers. Connoisseurs of whiskies, vodkas and gins may take the time to hunt down craft distilleries, but most people still shop for big-name brands at state liquor stores.
Harthcock figures as more micro-distilleries begin bottling, shopping for locally produced spirits will become as natural as buying beer from a local brewer or fresh bread from a neighborhood bakery.
"The industry is ripe," he said, adding that growth will benefit all of the players.
"Right now, spirits from micro-distilleries are a novelty," he said. "As more competitors get into the market, it will be more about quality."
And Harthcock is convinced that there are plenty of different tastes to drive demand for a variety of hand-crafted spirits.
"Like bread, you wouldn't want sliced white all the time," he said.
Originally from Mississippi, the Harthcock's white whiskey is a tribute to southern moonshine, a new taste for Nashua. Their gin is an original recipe flavored with grains of paradise and citrus.
At Sea Hagg Distillery, which specializes in rum-flavored with local fruits, Heather Hughes and Ron Vars also field lots of questions from would-be distillers.
"We've spent an inordinate amount of time explaining how to get into the business," said Vars. And like the Harthcocks, they are more than happy to help.
"I like to say we're ending our dependence on foreign alcohol," laughed Vars.
For Vars, Hughes and the Harthcocks, part of the attraction of distilling was the chance to combine science, technology, creativity and business savvy into a product whose sole purpose is enjoyment.
Micro-distillers not only dream up new flavors, they also use innovative methods to produce spirits. Harthcock flavors his gin by placing botanicals in the path of alcohol vapors as they are headed through the still. At Sea Hagg, specially toasted and charred barrels are used to age rums and brandies.
Awash in red tape
And while it's both challenging and rewarding to discover just the right tweaks and details, distillers learn early on that the business comes with hoops to jump through, forms to file and exacting federal and state rules to live by. It can take 18 months to a couple of years to get through the federal and state permitting process, and because the site, equipment and supplies need to be in place to be approved, the startup costs for micro-distilleries can be daunting.
With a New Hampshire liquor manufacturing license, a distillery can produce 5,000 cases of spirits each year to be sold, one case at a time, at the site where it's made.
To sell to restaurants, pubs and liquor stores, distillers must send their products to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, which distributes them though its warehouse.Filling a niche
Despite those hurdles, micro-distilleries are thriving, in part, because they satisfy a demand for locally-made products. Distillers who can tap a local supply chain for ingredients are doubly blessed.
And most micro-breweries offer free tours, sampling parties and other events that give people something new to do.
"People are out there, riding around. They need to have a place to go," said Vars, who thinks a rum and whiskey trail, similar to the wine trails in grape growing regions, would be a hit.
Some industry watchers have warned that the flourishing micro-distillery trend may eventually become too much of a good thing. Too many new products competing for cramped shelf space may lead to limited exposure and trickling sales.
And some food critics have suggested that too many choices could overwhelm a niche market driven by adventurous sippers out for a new flavor. There's also the sense that when it comes to buying spirits, most people pick a brand they like and stick with it.
But Harthcock doesn't buy the idea of a limited market where people pass by new choices and automatically reach for familiar favorites.
"Picking your favorite whiskey is like picking your favorite child. It's impossible," he said.