The craft distillery game is not an easy one, but Rick Burch, owner and distiller at CaskWerks Distilling Co., is not daunted. Best known as the bassist of Jimmy Eat World, Burch has found another niche in the world of gin, whiskey, and liqueurs. While CaskWerks is still new, Burch and his team already are turning out a quality gin and apple pie liqueur, with a whiskey not far off on the horizon.
Like many distillers, Burch's interest in spirits came from his love of drinking them — especially whiskey. Attracted to its diversity, from bourbon to Scotch to smooth wheat whiskey and everything in between, he says his favorites are those from the Suntory Yamazaki distillery in Japan. "I like Yamazaki. It's got everything. It's really smooth. I used to like really smoky, heavily peated whiskey, but I've gone in the opposite direction and now I like wheat whiskey. They're more simple whiskeys," he says.
CaskWerks itself was born when Burch met future partner John Miller at an AZ Society of Homebrewers meeting in Tempe. Miller had been distilling vodka with Arroyo Vodka, and Burch says they instantly connected. "We had similar ideas on distilling. We loved the process and thought it'd be fun to do one ourselves," he says. By this time, Burch had been interested in distilling for six or seven years already. After he and Miller decided to team up in 2013, they began the long search for a proper distilling space.
Limited to real estate in an industrially zoned neighborhood, the hunt for the perfect location took a long time. But the new space, located at University and McClintock in Tempe, fits the bill for CaskWerks. While Burch and his team are still in the process of fine-tuning their stills, custom-made by Phil Spivey, they are also making plans for a modest tasting room to occupy the storefront of the space.
In addition to the custom 300-gallon still they use for making large batches of their products, Burch also has a 20-gallon still used for testing. Burch says he is grateful that many of the antiquated Arizona laws regarding small-batch distilleries have been updated to allow for businesses like his to operate. "It could be better sometimes, but it's [now] an environment for small distilleries to succeed."
The craft distilling license is only a few years old, but the new legislation also enables businesses to make a larger profit through product distribution. When distillers had to sell their product to a distributor, "you would make pennies on the bottle," Burch says, "and that becomes a numbers game. You have to make a million bottles just to pay for your overhead." He appreciates the ability to self-distribute up to 500 cases of his own spirits, adding "distributors don't have the same passion; it's not their product."
The main products in CaskWerks rotation include a botanical gin and an apple pie liqueur, both of which are near and dear to the CaskWerks team. Burch says the motivation to create the gin was to alter people's negative feelings toward older, tougher-to-appreciate styles of gin. "We wanted to change people's associations with their grandfathers' gin. It was piney, sharp, medicinal — and not so pleasant. We wanted to show that gin can be different," Burch says. CaskWerks uses soft Portuguese juniper, lemon and orange peels, coriander, and hibiscus flower, all geared toward giving the gin a signature Southwestern flavor. "We wanted to keep it balanced, so it's not super-complex. It's . . . accessible."
Burch has tested the gin in cocktails already, but prefers it in a gin and tonic. Relying on new CaskWerks associate Travis Nass, Burch went through several tonics trying to find the perfect pair to his gin. "The top was Fever Tree's Mediterranean tonic. They dance well together," he says. However, Burch says that Nass has experimented with the gin in punches and negronis, and he is proud that the gin has a flavor that doesn't disappear when used in cocktails.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the apple pie liqueur is a fun, not too sweet addition to the CaskWerks roster. The liqueur was inspired by a recipe from John Miller's family that goes back generations. "It's unique in that it is like apple pie, but in liquid form. It's made using apple juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, and honey," says Burch. "It's not overly sweet — drinkable on its own, but also good splashed in a cocktail." Along with the gin, the apple pie liqueur will be on CaskWerks shelves full time.
Burch says CaskWerks is a "sensory-driven" distillery, meaning the distillers rely on taste and smell to tell them how their product is doing and when it is ready. Their goal is to have fun with the distillery and try new things. Burch says they'd like to collaborate with other artists in the future, including "flavor artists," musicians, and visual artists. "We're not afraid of trying something new," he says. "We want to sit down, have a few drinks, find out what they're into, sample things, and try a whole new realm." Burch says he's also interested in working with chefs. "They have a different way of combining ingredients," he says,"and we want to shine a light on something that's different."
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In addition to the gin and apple pie liqueur, Burch says that CaskWerks also has a signature whiskey on the way. The still is in the final stages of being set up, but it's almost finished, says Burch. It will be a Scottish-style whiskey, utilizing a two-step distilling process that will render the whiskey smooth and clean. He says the mash bill will be 55 percent wheat, mostly regional Sonoran wheat, and 45 percent barley to give the whiskey additional depth.
Before the whiskey goes into barrels, Burch hopes to bottle some of the clear whiskey in order to taste it and gain perspective on how the distillate is doing. While he will start aging the whiskey in new charred oak barrels, he says he hopes to experiment with used barrels, including those used to age port, sherry, rum, and bourbon to give his whiskey distinct flavors.
Burch says it can be difficult to split his time between CaskWerks and his work with Jimmy Eat World, which is currently in the process of recording a new album, but he is grateful that he works with a dedicated, collaborative team at the distillery. "The guys down here are really sharing the load," he says. "It's a team environment."