Dogfish Head, one of the nation’s largest, most successful craft breweries, is poised for a major expansion next month with the launch of its new, 100 percent “scratch-made” spirits line.
The Milton, Delaware-based company has enjoyed tremendous popularity with its self-described “off-centered” beers and ales since company president Sam Calagione founded it in June of 1995 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
Then called Dogfish Head’s Brewings and Eats, the company’s first batch of Shelter Pale Ale was reportedly crafted in three small kegs fueled by propane burners. Paired with eats from the restaurant’s wood-fired grill, the reputation of the beer and the establishment grew rapidly.
In the summer of 2002, the company moved production up the road to Milton, DE into a new, 100,000 square foot facility to accommodate customer demand. At the same time, Calagione, who, according to Dogfish Head’s Distillery Manager James Montero “has a history of following his entrepreneurial instincts,” began experimenting with spirits as well.
“He actually cobbled together some farm equipment and fashioned it into a distilling unit,” Montero recounts. “We call it the Frankenstill. Dogfish Head has been using it for 12 years.”
Montero says the Frankenstill has been churning out a limited line of gins, rums and vodkas ever since, which are about to hit prime time. Production is being moved out of the Rehoboth pub into the new, custom-designed distillery in Milton, DE. He notes that the Frankenstill will not be retired; rather it will continue to be used for research and development, small batches.
Under the direction of head distiller Graham Hamblett, Dogfish Head will debut Dogfish Head Analog Vodka™, Compelling Gin™ and Whole Leaf Gin™. The spirits will be distilled in two, state-of-the-art 500-gallon copper stripping stills and a 250-gallon copper vodka column, sourced from Vendome Copper & Brass Works, a fourth-generation custom fabricator based out of Louisville, KY.
“You can make spirits from almost any type of raw material, we have chosen to start with the same ingredients that go into our beer,” says Hamblett. “In our process, everything starts in its rawest form, from scratch, and we will use the best ingredients available. We use a batch distillation approach through each stage. It’s a bit more work than other approaches, but it allows me to closely monitor and control each step of the distillation process.”
Montero says Dogfish Head will be targeting two primary consumer groups with its new spirits line. He describes them as “our core beer drinkers” and “those spirit drinkers not as familiar with the Dogfish brand or who don’t like beer. Dogfish Head will now have something to offer them.”
Reflecting on Dogfish Head’s brewing and more recent distilling successes, Montero notes that, “The journey of discovery for craft beer has been going on for 20 years. Dogfish Head’s expansion gives us the opportunity to talk to these types of consumers. It’s early yet in this journey. People are just starting to spend more time thinking about the spirits they put in their craft cocktails.”
Montero acknowledges that Dogfish Head is not alone in riding the relatively recent trend into craft distilling. Claiming that there are between 80-100 new distilleries per year in the U.S. and two new craft breweries per day, he notes that there is “a lot of new liquid entering the market.”
“Dogfish is not new,” he points out. “We have a 20 year history for how this category gets big and grows … It’s important to have brand and product distinction … making the investment to bring your story to life, to stand out on the shelves.”
“As the competitive market heats up, you have to be thoughtful and focused about what you do best,” Montero goes on to say. “That’s what we’re about – doing things consistently with the Dogfish Head brand.”
The story of Dogfish Head is just one example how brewers are moving into distilling and winemakers into brewing. There’s a new normal emerging, and producers like James Montero are setting the trend by offering their consumers an authentic brand experience.
In February 2016, the inaugural USbevX conference is gathering hundreds to producers and their stories, to exchange ideas, share innovation, and explore the new normal of the beverage industry.