While her newest venture trades kegs and cans for casks and cocktails, Rhonda sees opening a distillery as a natural progression of her previous roles—because, as she likes to say, whiskey is nothing more than the evolution of beer.
“I’ve always been in love with whiskey,” says Rhonda. “Ever since Jim Koch [founder of the Boston Beer Company] asked me to start a beer company in 1983 and I said ‘I don’t drink beer—I drink whiskey!’”
Rhonda kept her whiskey dreams on the back burner for a while, but in 2015, she unveiled her latest project: Boston Harbor Distillery, a brand-new craft distillery on Boston’s formerly industrial waterfront. Here, whiskey is the star of the show, with award-winning expressions that take advantage of Boston’s natural resources and centuries-long heritage. We caught up with Rhonda to learn more about the origins of Boston Harbor Distillery, its historic building, and how the amazing Taster’s Club exclusive bottling they made for us this month might have kicked off a brand-new future product line.
A Uniquely Boston Accent
It took Boston Harbor Distillery nearly two years to find a suitable space to call home. Finally, they visited a site originally constructed in 1859 on Boston’s southern waterfront. While the structure had been neglected, its stunning industrial bones—think Douglas fir post and beam construction, 40-foot ceilings, and over 100 windows—were irresistible.
But finding it was just the beginning. It took over a year to renovate the space and bring it back to life, creating a functional production space as well as a lounge-style tasting room and cocktail bar. Today, Boston Harbor Distillery is the latest in a long line of entrepreneurial Massachusetts companies to bring vitality to this venerable old building, which, over the years, has produced horse nails, yachts, ice cream, and now whiskey.
While whiskey is the flagship, visitors are often surprised to see just how diverse Boston Harbor Distillery’s lineup really is. The Putnam New England whiskey range includes a grain-to-glass single malt mashed, distilled, and aged entirely onsite, as well as a rye whiskey made from sourced unaged spirit that’s redistilled and aged at Boston Harbor Distillery. Lawley’s Small Batch Rum is distilled from molasses in homage to Boston’s history of trade with the Caribbean, and comes in dark and light variants. Coffee and maple cream liqueurs offer craft alternatives to big-name brands (as well as additional tasting room options for sweet-tooth drinkers). And finally, the Spirit of Boston line takes advantage of Rhonda’s history with the Boston Beer Company. This collection is made by distilling finished beer from Sam Adams, including stouts, triples, lagers, IPLs, and more, then aging the spirit in used casks to keep the focus on the fascinating aromatics and flavors.
Distilled to Touch
A 150-gallon Vendome Copper & Brass Works copper pot and modified column still manufactured anchors the production floor and is the focal point of the room. Each piece of equipment used to make alcohol is required by the federal government to have a serial number. “The registered serial number on our still is 1776. It’s really cool that one ended up in Boston,” laughs Rhonda.
Here, all of Boston Harbor Distillery’s products come to life, carefully shepherded by the attentive hand of the distilling team. “We distill to the touch,” explains Rhonda. “Which means we actually touch the spirit. When the heads are coming off, you can put your hand under the stream and it just feels wet and cold, like acetone. Then, when it’s hearts, it literally starts to transform and you get a silky smoothness, like a silk shirt. Finally, the tails become oily. You really can feel the difference, so it literally is distilled to the touch.”
As whiskey is made up merely of grain, yeast, water and wood, each ingredient is very important to the flavor profile. Boston Harbor Distillery selects whole grains and toasted and heavily charred barrels from different regions. The water comes directly from the Quabbin Reservoir, one of the largest and purest water supplies in the United States. “It just so happens to be the freshest water source in the country,” says Rhonda. “We don’t have to treat it at all.”
It all adds up to a sophisticated, supple house style that’s easy to love (and even easier to drink). “When you taste our whiskey, you taste this really elegant, wonderfully smooth and silky flavor. It’s a combination of how we make our cuts, the grains, the water, and the wood,” explains Rhonda.
Experimenting with Casks
This month, some lucky Taster’s Club members will receive a bottle of Boston Harbor Distillery’s rye whiskey in their shipments. It’s no ordinary expression. Earlier this year, we asked Rhonda and her team to make us an exclusive whiskey to share with members, and they came through with flying colors. Putnam New England Rye Whiskey Red Wine Cask is Boston Harbor Distillery’s very first wine cask finished whiskey.
To make this whiskey, Boston Harbor Distillery took aged Putnam New England Rye and re barreled it into fresh cabernet franc casks sourced from Boston Winery, which is conveniently located just next door. Soaked with fruity red wine, those casks imparted additional flavor as well as color to the rye whiskey, producing a brand-new spin on a classic style. “The red wine flavors add a different dimension,” says Rhonda. “It’s this wonderful, round smoothness with a little tinge of fruity red wine characteristics. And it’s a little darker, too. If you put it next to the other rye, you can see the ruby hue in it.”
For now, the only way you can get your hands on a bottle of this delicious stuff is by being a club member. But if you’re not part of the club, don’t fret. The project was so successful that Boston Harbor Distillery plans to keep experimenting. “We’ll definitely try it again!” says Rhonda. “And we’re also sourcing some wonderful 12-year-old bourbon from Kentucky and Tennessee that we’re finishing in our single malt barrels. So yes, we’ll definitely extend our barrel finishing range, and I’m excited to try it with different types of wines as well.”
While we’d love to take the credit for inspiring the idea, we’re pretty sure it’s really due to Rhonda’s remarkable vision and the hardworking, creative team at Boston Harbor Distillery.
www.bostonharbordistillery.com. 12 R Ericsson Street, Boston, Massachusetts. Open Saturday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. for tours and cocktails.