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Craft Distiller Carves Out Creative Niche

Heartland Distillers was one of the first new distillers to open in Indiana since Prohibition. After starting out with its small-batch vodka, its founders have added spirits flavored with Chai tea, espresso and chocolate, and cherry vanilla.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Buckets of sticky, sweet sorghum syrup sat on the floor of Heartland Distillers in Indianapolis.

Hints of molasses, butterscotch and gingerbread hung in the air, wafting out as distillery workers poured gallons of the concoction into the belly — or mash tun — of the copper still.

The syrup traditionally is used for cookies, pies and breads. But craft distillers Matt Colglazier and Stuart Hobson have used it to add to their expanding craft spirits endeavor.

Throughout central Indiana, libation lovers can enjoy a locally made glass of wine or a beer brewed in Johnson County. But where craft breweries and wineries have become big business, a void exists for micro-distilleries making small-batch vodka, bourbon and other liquor.

Heartland Distillers was one of the first new distillers to open in Indiana since Prohibition. After starting out with its small-batch vodka, its founders have added spirits flavored with Chai tea, espresso and chocolate, and cherry vanilla.

Hobson had dabbled in oak-aged bourbon and herb-infused gin. He teamed up with Colglazier to produce the world's first sweet sorghum spirit, called SorgRhum.

People want locally produced food and drinks, Hobson told the Daily Journal. These craft distillers are applying the concept to the alcohol they drink.

"More people are understanding that bigger isn't always better. Sometimes the small guys can outshine the big guys for overall quality. That has people checking us out," Hobson said.

Like the beer and wine industries in previous decades, craft distilling has become a growing business trend. The number of small-batch distillers has increased from 69 operations in 2003 to almost 250 currently, according to the American Distillers Institute.

Only three exist in Indiana. Virtuoso Distillers in Mishawaka focuses on vodkas produced from rye. Starlight Distillers in southern Indiana produces craft brandies alongside owner Ted Huber's popular wines.

"Our farm was established by my great-great-grandfather in the 1800s, and the first things we made were wine and brandies," Huber said. "We were already doing those things, so after Prohibition, the recipes and everything already existed."

Heartland Distillers was founded in 2008, when Hobson envisioned reviving Indiana's significant distilling history. The state was an active spirits producer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But Prohibition forced all of the operations to close, and none surfaced after alcohol was legalized again.

Hobson had custom-made copper stills produced in Germany then shipped to the U.S., where they were installed in a former warehouse in Indianapolis.

In one of the gleaming copper tanks, thousands of gallons of corn cooked and fermented into alcohol.

Over the course of days, the resulting vodka would be filtered, concentrated and separated six times. The potent "heart" of the liquor would be saved, after the impurities are thrown own. The result will be 1,200 bottles of Indiana Vodka, distilled in Indianapolis by Heartland Distillers.

As the centerpiece product, the vodka and its infused cousins use local grain and produce to create a true Indiana product.

The Indiana Infusions line adds elements of orange cream, raspberry citrus and honey lemon during the distilling process to make bold flavors.

"If you go to the vodka section of your favorite liquor store, there's no shortage of flavored vodkas out there. We're a small player in the industry. My last name isn't Smirnoff," Hobson said. "So we chose unique pairings of flavor to make them stand out."

When they started experimenting, distillers couldn't find flavors that they liked. Single formulas such as cherry or espresso just weren't hitting like Hobson thought they should.

But by blending flavors, they got it right.

"Think of all of your favorite soft drinks. You don't drink lemon soda or lime soda. You drink lemon-lime soda. The blends work with each other," Hobson said. "We just decided to do the same thing on the liquor side."

While vodka lies at the heart of the distillery, Hobson and Colglazier produce other spirits, as well.

One of the biggest sellers is the world's first sweet sorghum-based liquor. The idea came about after Colglazier, a distributor with Big Red Liquors and craft spirit aficionado, was playing around with a beer-brewing kit in his Bloomington home.

He noticed that the dark concentrated malt he was using while creating beer was very similar to sweet sorghum syrup sold by farmers in southern Indiana, Colglazier said.

Contracting with an Amish farmer in Bromer who could supply him with eight gallons of sorghum syrup, Colglazier made his first fermented wash of sweet sorghum spirits.

When he contacted Hobson with the idea for a larger distillation of the spirit, Hobson offered a still where he could make the liquor. They worked on a recipe, and the result was SorgRhum, an amalgam of sorghum and rum.

"We can't call it rum, because it's not made with sugar cane. But it tastes like rum, and we got tricky with the name," Hobson said.

The duo make two kinds. The clear version carries an earthy kind of sweetness, while the dark is aged in new-charred oak barrels and presents spicy undertones.

Released in early 2012, the liquor has gained traction as a uniquely Hoosier product.

Bars such as the Rail in Bloomington have created signature concoctions using the liquor, and select stores such as Kahn's Liquors and Vine & Table carry it.

The company also distills bourbon, packaging it in stone ceramic bottles.

With a nose of juniper, clove and spicy rye, the 90 proof liquor has become one of Hobson and Colglazier's most popular products.

Breaking into the established spirits market has required tireless promotion. What they've learned is that most of the struggle is getting people to try their products, Hobson said.

People have their favorite liquors when they order a drink, so it's tough sometimes to get them to sample something new. But through marketing, attending tasting events and being present at events such as Germanfest and the Caroline Symmes Memorial Celebrity Softball Challenge in Indianapolis, their piece of the market has grown.

For the first time this spring, both SorgRhum and Spring Mill Bourbon will be available outside the state. The distillery has just reached a deal with distributors in California to sell the spirits there, and discussions are in progress to ship to Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Illinois.

"Hopefully, we'll get our name noticed a little bit. It's like any small business — we have limited funds, with a lot of potential. We have to maximize the bang for our buck when we talk to people," Hobson said.

Craft distillers in Indiana compare their situation to the years before the small winery and microbrewery crazes of the past 30 years. Momentum is growing, and they want to be part of the emerging industry, Huber said.

"You can compare it to the farm-to-table idea that is so popular right now," he said. "People want to know what's in their food and how it's made. They want to meet the people making it."

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