Interview with Grand River Spirits owner Karen Binder
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Karen Binder, the owner of Grand River Spirits out of Carbondale, Illinois to talk about the craft distilling industry. Her business has been established for a year and it has been moving product onto shelves for about three months in the southern Illinois area. Karen has been in the alcohol industry for a few decades, working both for the State and for vineyards, experiences that have shaped her all-business demeanor and tenacious work ethic.
Sensible Reason: When did you start your business?
Karen Binder: According to the state of Illinois we created our LLC [Limited Liability Company] in November of 2011.
Sensible Reason: What inspired you to get into this business?
Karen Binder: Now that is a long story. This story is rooted in the wine industry. As a practicing business journalist I had a very unique opportunity to follow the wine industry almost from its infancy. At the time that I started to pay attention to our state wineries there were only 11 in the entire state. I’ve watched it grow and blossom. Through the course of that experience I learned an awful lot about the alcohol industry. That experience led to the invitation to apply for the executive director position for the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council. It was a great opportunity and a very unique job. I was specifically tasked all across the state to work with grape growers and wineries to develop business marketing plans. So I’ve had opportunities to visit nooks and crannies that most people have never even heard of. However budget cuts led to the council being dissolved and that is so unfortunate because it was a wonderful outreach service to this new industry that was blossoming. What we did in response to that was we making sure that the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Illinois Bureau of Tourism continued supporting the wine and grape growing industry. Of course I went back to newspapers but I always missed wine. So there came a day when I said, “How do I get back into wine? We have upwards of 90 wineries in the State of Illinois we don’t need another winery.” That is when I started investigating Brandy. Essentially when you distill wine you get brandy. And I thought “Well that’s something different. It’s supportive it compliments our existing wine industry in Southern Illinois.” So I started to do some research and I found out that if you had your still configured in the right way, then you can make all kinds of spirits. Not all, but most, and that is how it kind of started. My story spins off the wine trail.
SR: Has anybody followed your path in the area or are you blazing a new business trail?
KB: As far as Southern Illinois goes for a legal craft distillery, you could say we are the first to be licensed. Now, we all know moonshiners. They’re out there and they’ve found me. There is one over in Saleen County who has a Whiskey that I would absolutely love to make legal, it is amazing. You don’t find any other operating craft distilleries until you get up by Chicago, and that is where you are seeing a bulk of them. A good portion of the craft distilleries that are in operation in the United States tend to be in metropolitan markets which is kind of obvious because that’s where the population centers are. Guess what? We’re sitting right in the middle of the best grain and fruit that you could ever want to put into spirits. So we are the inverse of those distillers, we are sitting in the middle of some of the best ingredients that you could put into spirits, so we will go to the city.
SR: What flavors or types of Spirits do you currently make or are experimenting with?
KB: Right now we have one product available on the market called Red Eye Moonshine, a.k.a. un-aged corn whiskey. Technically all moonshine in the United States as we know is corn whiskey. We are also working on some flavored moonshines we’re going to have what we call Red Eye Hot, which is a hot cinnamon flavored moonshine. And we will also have what we call Red Eye Pie, which is going to be based on the amazing Apple Dumplings that they make at Flam Orchards in Union County. Then this fall we will also have what we call baby whiskies, they will be called Grand River Baby Whiskies, and those are going to be some really quick whiskies made in 15 gallon barrels, not the big 55 gallon but just in the 15 gallon barrels.
SR: Where do the ideas of these flavored spirits come from?
KB: Oh a little bit of everything. You know when you just sit down and you just have a drink and you’re conversing with your friends at your local watering hole everyone begins to start to talk about ‘hey I like this’ or ‘what about that’ or wouldn’t that taste good if we did this’ well that conversation happens not only in the distillery, but in the winery and the brew pub as well. So we draw our inspiration from a lot of different places.
SR: Where did the Red Eye Hot idea come from?
KB: There were one of these conversations that happening around a lunch meal at a rotary club meeting with an ardent fan, I mean we had not even made a product yet and he’s a big fan of ours. We started talking and he’s like ‘oh you know those atomic fireballs? Those are amazing! But you know what’s even better? Red Hot candies because they are even sweeter!’ so we just started talking and that’s where the original inspiration came from. Of course I think we have all tasted some similar type products or we have a fondness for a particular candy of our childhood. After Halloween we went on a little buying spree so we could do an experiment– I mean you have to experiment. So what we did is we came up with jars of the moonshine and we experimented with, I think it was 30 different ingredients and the hot cinnamon was one that clearly rose to the top, there were two or three others that we’re working on that will definitely go into development. Not this summer but next summer we will work on a lemonade, but we will use local honey to give it some local roots. We will also play with either sage or rosemary that we can buy from local farmers to also give it a little herbaceous punch.
KB: We will see what happens, they’re going to be a different kind of whiskey than what most people are used to. To begin with craft distilling is a different manufacturing process than say, the Jack Daniels and the Maker’s Marks in the world do. We really get our fingerprints all over that spirit and we work very hard with our still to cut out all of the undesirable alcohols that offer off flavors or even off alcohols that will contribute to a hangover. Now I’m not saying that we offer a hangover proof product but it definitely will lead to a less painful hangover.
SR: Since Grand River Spirits resides in this “ingredient belt,” do you use specifically locally found ingredients?
KB: Actually right now we do use local corn, and we use corn flour to make our moonshine. Using flour instead of crack corn, or even a finer grade of corn, allows us to have a quicker and more efficient chemical conversion when we make our mash. We buy our corn from the Port of Cape Girardo. They have a huge mill down there, and up to 93 percent of their corn comes from Illinois. That definitely qualifies as a local ingredient. As we go forward and we start making whiskey that we are aging in the barrel, we plan on working with local farmers to plant some special grains. Southern Illinois has wonderful red winter wheat and we are interested in barley and rye, but we are also going to work with local farmers in planting millet and sorghum. There are some old-time farmers around here that remember that southern Illinois is one of the biggest producers of sorghum in the Midwest.
SR: Lets jump back to the politics, have Carbondale City Officials been helpful in the legal aspect of craft distilling?
KB: Well when you look at this type of business you have to look at all the different levels of the government, beginning with Federal to the State, and then to your Local government. Now this particular location that we are located right now is what we’re viewing as a temporary start up location. We happen to be in Jackson County outside of Carbondale’s city limits but we’re within the mile and a half zoning jurisdiction. There are certain things about the city zoning ordinance more in particular with land use applications that we needed to pay attention to. When we went about doing our research the first thing we did was go to the city of Carbondale because they’re going to be our neighbors. We want to be good neighbors and we asked them what do we need to do to produce craft spirits in the Carbondale area? They were wonderful and they understood the economic development opportunity that our business presents and how our business will blend in with others and the culmination of all of us working together is a big boost not only for Carbondale but southern Illinois. So they were very helpful.
SR: Is Carbondale doing this to improve its economic position?
KB: Yeah, they have a welcome mat out and there are certain city officials that I run into who are always asking ‘how are things going’ and they know that we are going to have to make a decision about where our permanent location will be. They have been very friendly, supportive, and welcoming. Absolutely.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were craft distilleries operating within every state of the union this year.”
SR: So as far as you know have any other distilleries been met by open arms from their local government?
KB: Not that I am aware of but that is the whole point of our free enterprise system in the United States “come one come all” there is also a pretty well documented concept in manufacturing called clustering and we have seen that work like a charm in our wineries, hence, we now have 3 wineries in southern Illinois. Each one of those trails can be viewed as its own little industrial cluster.
SR: Could you quickly describe what clustering is?
KB: Well a good example that is easy to put your arms around is say you have an auto manufacturer and while they assemble all the pieces to build a particular car model they need some support industries to provide the upholstery, or the headlights, or the tires. You put all of them together in a certain geographical location you have a cluster.
SR: So that is what is going on with all of the ingredients in the final production of your company’s product?
KB: Absolutely! If you look at what is going on beginning with our wineries and the grape growers and then now we have breweries along with this distillery and I’m sure that one day there will be other distilleries, all of us, while may have some differences, we all support each other and we all compliment each other.
SR: How many product distributors do you have?
KB: Right now we are using 3 and we are talking to a 4th this week. And that is one of the things about our startup status that we will be changing constantly…Our goal right now is to make sure we have our backyard covered as well as we can and we view southern Illinois to be our backyard…But our window to the world is St. Louis so really our next big target would be to go into St. Louis.
SR: Are your distributors excited to move a craft spirit into the market?
KB: So far that has been our experience. The craft distilling movement is relatively new. We haven’t seen this type of craft manufacturing movement or this kind of spirit movement since before prohibition. It has been years, decades.
SR: In a recent article on your Company’s Facebook page it said that Alabama, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and New Jersey are the only states without a craft distillery, is there any reason for that or did it just happen to be that way?
KB: I really don’t know the specific reasons, my guess is that it just happens to be that way, it’s not that they’re “anti” its not that it is just that maybe there hasn’t been someone who has taken enough interest to go forward with a business plan. That is probably going to change easily within a year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were craft distilleries operating within every state of the union this year.
SR: So you think there is going to be a boom like the craft brewing industry experienced?
KB: Some people think the boom is beginning to peak now. There are others who believe that we are only at a third of our capacity in the United States for craft distilling. So we will have to see. Now at a certain point this little blossoming industry will just have to learn how to stand on its own. After that it will just be good old fashioned business to business, then whoever sells the best will perform the best. A lot of people have this idea of ‘oh making your own whiskey, how cool is that? That is so romantic!’ Well it is fun, it’s cool, but I’m here to tell you this is a sales job, and that is where most of the time is spent; is selling the product. A lot of people loose track of that.
SR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
KB: I would like to add that Craft Distilling does open up a whole new opportunity for creativity. There are some distillers out there that are making spirits that no one has ever even seen before. There are some gins that they are making that you can’t even detect the juniper in, you’re getting the lemon urbane, citrus, rose, lavendar, and all of these really amazingly different kinds of flavors that are coming forward. There is some real exciting stuff being worked on by a handful of whiskey makers who are real interested in smoke. When you think about barrel aging, and charred barrels, there is a certain amount of smoke related to that, but that is smoke flavor. We’re talking about smoked ingredients. Most people think about scotch and the tradition of using smoked peate. Well this is an American answer to that and it’s unique, different, bold, and very American. It is exciting and inspirational, so we are hoping here in central Illinois to tap into our own back yard quite literally, and find things that are native just to us and show it off by putting it into a spirit.
SR: So you think Craft Distilleries can revolutionize the industry, like a renaissance?
KB: Oh absolutely, it sounds like a lot of fun, there are some real interesting ideas going on. There is an awful lot of innovation from all different kinds of aspects, not only how you use ingredients to build your spirits but how you ferment, distill, the equipment, and machinery you use, even the way they sell. There is some very unique labeling going on out there that – the Feds approve it – that means the labels are consumer conscious. There is still this wonderful creativity taking place.