the state in general is gaining a major following toward breweries
and pubs, not to mention localized brews, there's now a big request
and audience for hard liquor. But with most of the well-known mixes
coming from everywhere else but Utah, its hard to find anything
beyond beer. There are however two distilleries in the state and
today we look at one of them.
Ogden's Own Distillery has been reaching back to the city's fond history of bootlegging, trying to recapture the spirit of prohibition days with a decent swill of its own. Now with bottles of Underground showing up in stores across the state and branching into California, things are looking pretty good for the northern company. I got to chat with owner Timothy Smith about the drink and the business, as well as thoughts on local liquor in general.
Gavin: Hey Timothy, first off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Timothy: I am a dreamer who was lucky enough to turn my dream into a reality. My childhood was deeply steeped in religion. At age eight, my family moved from Dallas to Crane, Texas. Population 3,400. We moved into the parsonage of the Pentecostal church that my Grandfather on my Mother’s side had started. He was a true evangelical. He would arrive in a city sometimes preaching on street corners. It wouldn’t take him long to either rent a building or build a church. He would pass the church on to another Pentecostal minister and do it all over again.
Gavin: When and how did you first take an interest in making liquor?
Timothy: My Grandfather on my Dad’s side stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge along with numerous others. I was ten years old and interested in where my Grandfather was. Tom, my older brother and I were spending a few weeks with our Grandparents in North East Texas. I began exploring in the general direction in which I’d seen him disappear into the pine forest. After almost turning back a few times, I came upon a large fermentation tank and a moonshine still with my Grandfather nowhere in sight. Somehow I just knew what this contraption was. We never talked about it because before he’d leave out to check on things, he’d tell me to stay at the house.
Gavin: What was your prior experience like making alcoholic beverages?
Timothy: My first experience making alcohol was when I was about twelve years old. I used apple juice and bakers yeast. I sealed off the bottle with a rubber balloon and let it ferment in my closet. The end product was not the best, but was my first successful batch of hooch. I began experimenting with distillation in my clubhouse that same year. We had moved from the church and lived in an oilfield. The refinery where my Dad worked was less than a mile away. My dad explained petroleum distillation to me and I had all the information that I needed to get started.
Gavin: How did the idea for Ogden's Own come about?
Timothy: I was at a crossroads in my life. I had failed to get accepted back into the Air Force pilot program after deciding not to enter on account of my new baby girl, Taylor. I had worked multiple jobs from Air Force Active Duty, to self employment to bartending to retail management to Civil Service to mortgage loans. I spent years beating myself up for not entering a flight program with the military when I could have. I was looking for a new dream when it occurred to me in 2002 that I was going to start a distillery in Utah.
Gavin: What was it like for you starting the company up and purchasing the equipment?
Timothy: Starting the company was not easy. I had no money to speak of, only a head full of research. I had quit my easy Civil Service job in 2005 thinking that I would make my seed money in the mortgage business. That was a bad idea. It’s amazing though what dogged determination can create. Many people thought that I was overcome with mania and was disconnected from reality. Family and friends are normally the first to not believe in your ideas. I began buying equipment from farmers and brewers. I built the stills myself.
Gavin: Did you experiment at first or had you already come up with a flavor you wanted to perfect?
Timothy: Underground actually began as an Absinthe drink. It still has a small amount of wormwood. Sometimes I focus on what I want for an end product, other times I see a cool bottle and wonder what the contents should tasted like.
Gavin: Without giving away grand secrets, what's the process like for you in creating a specific flavor?
Timothy: If I have an idea about what the specific flavor should taste like, I begin with the obvious ingredients and then dream up ideas of what would be complimentary and enhance the main flavors. I might create twenty basic possibilities and pick three that show promise.
Gavin: What's the story behind the name for Underground?
Timothy: Underground is named after the tunnel system that sits under the streets of Ogden. Ogden was notorious for its lawless streets during the turn of the 20th century and for decades thereafter. The tunnels housed bootleggers, opium dens, smugglers’ hideouts, etc. Underground’s ingredients are reflective of the people, their native lands, and the general spirit of the time.
Gavin: Since introducing it, how has the product done and what's been the general response from the public?
Timothy: I was in Moab a few weeks ago and a gentleman tried to buy the Underground shirt off of my back. I traded him for his hoodie. We are currently stocked in Utah DABC stores and quite a few package agencies are carrying us also. Utahns that drink have given a lot of positive feedback on our website. I’ve had feedback from as far away as South Africa and Australia. I have no idea how they got it.
Gavin: Given the newfound success, will you be creating new flavors or expanding the business?
Timothy: We have a gin, an absinthe, and an herbal cream liqueur that are currently developed, but not yet for sale. Underground has been received well and I am currently exploring distribution in the Pacific Northwest.
Gavin: A little state-wide, what's your take on the liquor law changes, both good and bad?
Timothy: I think the liquor laws are evolving along quite well with the rest of the country. There are not many states that don’t have some type of odd laws. As a kid in West Texas, I remember only being able to buy food on Sundays. Patrons of the general store couldn’t buy beer or dry goods.
Gavin: How do those new changes affect you both as a business and as a patron?
Timothy: Eliminating mandatory private club membership is a great step for Utah. I enjoy being able to visit any establishment and not worrying about sponsorship. The one law that I haven’t been able to take advantage of yet is the ability to sample at the distillery. My insurance doesn’t cover me, and my location isn’t inviting to the public. High West Distillery will soon be able to serve their libations at their establishment.
Gavin: Being relatively new, what's your relationship like with bars, brewpubs, and other distilleries in the state?
Timothy: I have had much support from local bars, brewpubs, and restaurants. This is a very unique business to be in and most bar managers and owners are proud to help.
Gavin: What can we expect from you the rest of the year and going into next?
Timothy: I am working on Underground’s custom 750 ml bottle and should have it on the shelf by February at the latest. I have multiple brands that I’d love to release right away, but will have to wait until next year. Expect a limited run of Absinthe next Spring.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Timothy: I’d like to give a shout to Fox Van Cleef’s new release; Cigarettes, Terrorisim, Etc. I’d also like to give props to High West Distillery’s Peach Vodka. It’s almost too good.