While artisan beer brewing has been hot for a while, another niche segment of the drinkable arts that's coming on strong is craft distilling, featuring quirky companies that put as much thought, chemistry and passion into their small-batch whiskeys, rums, vodkas, brandies and other liquors as craft brewers do their complicated suds.
According to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, there are four licensed distilleries in the state: White River Distillery in Gassville, Arkansas Moonshine Inc. in Newport, Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock and Core Brewing and Distilling Co. in Springdale. A fifth company, Smithworks American Made Vodka, finishes and bottles spirits made out of state at a plant in Fort Smith.
The biggest news in Arkansas-based distilling now is coming from Rock Town and Core, which are planning or in the process of moving into more spacious digs so they can expand their product lines.
Core Brewing and Distilling announced last year that it would purchase a 36,000-square-foot location at 1000 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith, where the Fort Smith Southwest Times-Record had previously been printed, to turn it into a new distillery with an attached tasting room. Reached earlier this week, Core vice president Jay Richardson said the Fort Smith project is still on track, with the company completing a monthslong removal of machinery left over from the new location's newspaper days so construction for the distillery can begin.
"There was so much stuff in that business," Richardson said. "We're just finishing up getting it all cleaned out. There were some very, very large printing presses that were roughly three stories tall. There were three of them, and that has taken us awhile to get out of the building."
Richardson said the rough estimate on when the facility will be ready for production is "late 2017."
Core also hopes to open a school for distillers, coopers and brewers in cooperation with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; details should be finalized "in the immediate future," Richardson said.
When the distillery begins production, Richardson said, the focus will be on spirits made from predominantly Arkansas-sourced ingredients. Offerings will include bourbons, whiskeys, rums and brandies. He said the plan is to distribute Core liquors everywhere Core brews are sold, including Arkansas and potentially Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee.
Richardson said the pivot from beer to liquor isn't that difficult. "If you pay attention, a lot of the spirits are basically beer that is just fermented a different way," he said. "The process is very similar to us brewing beer, so it's not that big a stretch for us to go from one to the other."
Back in June, Rock Town founder and owner Phil Brandon announced the distillery would move from its location at 1216 E. Sixth St. to a new, larger space to be constructed on a lot two blocks away, at 1616 E. Capitol Ave. The new digs were to feature a larger warehouse and barrelhouse, plus a 2,000-square-foot room for tastings. But that plan is now on hold: Kelly Gee, tours and events manager for Rock Town, said the company is in talks with their property manager about staying put on East Sixth Street.
"We are talking again with Moses-Tucker about possibly renovating the place we're currently in and maybe expanding it a little bit, but I don't know any details yet," Gee said. "It's still very much up in the air on what we're going to do."