“What’s beautiful about this is that once you put it in the bottle, it stays that way, the way that we intended it to.”
As the legend goes, it wasn’t enough for Rhonda Kallman to co-found the Boston Beer Co. and help put the Hub and small brewers everywhere on the atlas. After decades of building Sam Adams into a household brand and behemoth, the craft industry icon founded Boston Harbor Distillery in 2012, bringing the same ethos she did to her previous startup three decades earlier.
Now, as her distillery approaches its 10-year anniversary on the Dorchester waterfront, Kallman presents her product as a significant contender with some serious barrels in the cellar. Age is an important factor in her current biz, and over the course of a decade her distillery has grown to produce rye and single malt whisky, multiple rums, ready-to-drinks, and various liqueurs and beer crossovers. Those barrels aren’t getting any younger, and in the booze game, that’s a good thing.
“We should have done gin first, but it’s hard as hell,” Kallman says, filling a shot glass with their 90-proof citrus-forward Harborside Gin for a sample. She’s passionate about every last drop she pours from every bottle, but still remembers where her heart is and what lured her to the business in the first place.
“If I could just get by on making whisky all day,” she says, “I would.”
Boston’s wet past is extremely vast, and every bottle coming out of Boston Harbor Distillery packs in a history lesson. Their jaw-on-the-floor gorgeous beam-and-brick building was a former horseshoe nail factory, and also housed production lines for world-renowned yacht makers as well as Seymour’s Ice Cream at one point.
“Pre-prohibition, there were more rum distilleries here than breweries,” Kallman says. “During our dark days, it was slaves, ammunition, and molasses.”
In addition to the multiple lines of liquors they already have named for the craft makers who occupied Dot long before them, they’re also working on a pear gin, in honor of the neighborhood’s history as a hotspot for delicious fuzzy fruit.
Walking in the back, “where the magic happens,” as Kallman says, the beer exec turned craft spirit ambassador explains the similarities between her old and new gigs.
“We take grain, just like when you start beer, and you put it in the [mash tun] and you get this hot sweet liquid out of it called wort,” she says. “The spent grains that are left behind, the parts and pieces that are abandoned, we shovel them out and leave them for composting. Then that hot, sweet liquid comes along these horizontal pipes, and that acts as a radiator, like a wort cooler heat exchanger. So you get boiling-hot wort one way and cold water the other and you put them in the fermenters, and this is where you pitch live yeast. That’s what makes alcohol.”
Kallman continues, “Up until now, you’re basically making beer. The yeast does its job, and when the sugars and the starches get converted to alcohol, it becomes wash, it’s fermented. And then the wash gets pumped … into the still, and ours is a hybrid still made for me by America’s oldest copper manufacturer, from Louisville. It’s constantly going. We were here ’til midnight last night.”
They’re currently raising money for a 500-gallon still, but by all means remain a small craft operation. As we tour the premises, workers are grabbing clinking wet bottles fresh off of racks and filling them with gin.
Of course, COVID has presented countless obstacles, including some unique to the sector. “We have barrels from Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina …” Kallman says, “but wood is hard to come by—we lost two cooperages that we use during the pandemic.” If anyone is used to the waiting game and things taking a little longer, though, it’s a distillery owner.
“I have to pay for everything you see here and then wait years.” Kallman speaks about the labor-intensiveness of it all. “But what’s beautiful about this is that once you put it in the bottle, it stays that way, the way that we intended it to.”
She adds, “I’m lucky to have John, our distiller, and our assistant distiller Heather, those two are an amazing team. My master distiller is in California. He develops the formulas, but John is taking that over now.”
“A lot of people still have never heard of it,” Kallman says, “but we’re really doing this shit here.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.