Most people would expect Boston Beer Company co-founder Rhonda Kallman to be raising a frosty mug to toast the start of 2015. But when the ball drops, she’ll actually be savoring a sip of Putnam New England Whiskey—the result of her latest venture as CEO of the new Boston Harbor Distillery.
“When Jim Koch first asked me to help start Boston Beer Company back in 1983, I was a whiskey drinker,” Kallman recalls. “I just didn’t drink beer then. He said, ‘I’ll make you something that you like.’ And of course, he did!”
Today, Kallman’s drinks of choice also include her own Lawley’s New England Spirit, made with molasses and Vermont maple syrup, and Seymour’s Local Roast Coffee Liqueur, crafted with Berkshires-
roasted beans at an 1855 building in Dorchester overlooking Boston Harbor. The names honor the site’s former occupants—Putnam Nail Co., the Seymour Ice Cream Company and shipbuilders George Lawley & Son. “It’s really exciting to be able to bring back this entrepreneurial center of Boston and give new life to this beautiful brick-and-beam building with 100 windows,” Kallman says. “The building’s just got fantastic views of the skyline. It’s so great to enjoy with a cocktail in your hand.”
That’s exactly what spirits enthusiasts will be able to do at tours, tastings and classes in early 2015, when BHD plans to open as the third craft distillery in Boston proper, after Bully Boy and GrandTen. “Rhonda and I talk about this every single week: Nobody really needs another bottle of liquor. I’ll be the first one to admit that,” says BHD co-founder Corey Bunnewith, a veteran of Drink, the bar at Coppa and his own beverage consulting biz. “But Boston Harbor Distillery is filling the need for a new experience in Boston. It is the whiskey paired with our people, customers, space and the experience that comes with those things that really makes us unique.”
Also unique: BHD will be the only distillery in the city with a female founder. It’s a path Kallman’s been down before.
“There were no other women in the [beer] industry when I started, so I was really breaking all of the rules,” Kallman says. “When you’re a woman in a bar at all times of the day and night, you’d better have a thick skin.” She got her start working as a secretary for Jim Koch’s consulting firm by day and moonlighting as a waitress and bartender by night, experience that helped prompt Koch to tap the 24-year-old Kallman to co-found Boston Beer Company. Koch says he admires her continued tenacity. “My first hire was my best hire ever. Rhonda was smart and capable and thrived in a mostly male-dominated industry.”
Honored as the “Pioneering Woman in the Beer Industry” in 1990 by the Institute for Brewing Studies, Kallman promoted the hiring and mentoring of women within Boston Beer Company and laid the groundwork for expansion to cider and hard tea, helping fuel the exponential growth of the brand. And though she left Boston Beer Company in 2000 to found the now-defunct New Century Brewing Company—maker of a lightly caffeinated beer that got squeezed by tightened FDA beverage standards—Kallman still reflects on her early struggles getting her foot in the door as one of her biggest professional challenges. “I wasn’t taken seriously, no matter whether I was walking into a restaurant to try to sell them my beer, standing in a package store or walking into a boardroom,” she says. “But after I spent a few minutes engaging somebody, they realized that I knew my stuff.”
Today, expertise in the beer industry makes transitioning to craft spirits a natural and savvy move, says Andrew Faulkner, vice president of the American Distilling Institute. “What is whiskey but distilled beer? Without a doubt, it’s a logical progression,” he says. And just as the craft-beer market boomed—from 44 breweries in 1980 to more than 3,000 as of June, according to the Brewers Association—the number of domestic craft distillers has risen too, from 52 in 2005 to 425 at year’s end in 2013. But there is still room for growth, Faulkner says.
Kallman shares that sentiment. “If you look at the cycle over the decades [of craft beverages], it really starts with jug wine, like Gallo and that stuff. It used to be over 80 percent of the volume, and now that 80 percent has shifted to a focus on small, independent producers and artisan quality. And then we saw beer follow that,” says Kallman, who believes craft distilling can follow a similar path. “I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I wanted to take that leap of faith,” she says, while acknowledging the challenges ahead. “[Change] doesn’t happen fast. … We’re over 50 years into this thing, and craft beer is still just 8 percent of all U.S. beer consumption—not that you’d know that in Boston!”
The latest issue of Distiller magazine offers reason for optimism, noting, “The market continues to grow along the same trajectory as the craft brewing market, and perhaps even faster, doubling every three years with regularity.” But continued success may depend, in part, on the growing ranks of women who imbibe. Beer Advocate managing editor Ben Keene points to data from the Brewers Association that shows that women between the ages of 21 and 34 now consume 15 percent of the total volume of craft beer in the U.S. “When you compare that with even five years ago, my guess is it would have been half of that,” Keene says. “That number may not look so impressive now, but it is foreshadowing to me of the potential of winning over women in craft spirits, beer and cider.”
He cites tasting rooms and education as key to that, and to the business models of most successful craft outfits. “People can know what goes into it and what to expect. It makes a difference when those same people go to a bar or bottle shop; they’re so much more knowledgeable,” says Keene, who released the book The Great Northeast Brewery Tour earlier this year. “I think that’s huge, specifically with women’s experiences in the past, that kind of speaking to that audience just wasn’t there.”
Hadley Douglas, co-owner of the Urban Grape, has seen that happen firsthand. “When we opened, women were coming in and buying brown spirits for their husbands or boyfriends and feeling very unsure of what to get. [Women’s] ‘territory’ was vodka and clear spirits and things to be made into a cocktail,” Douglas recalls. But after almost five years of classes and tasting sessions—especially for whiskey—many customers are more comfortable asking for something new, and she says women’s surging interest in brown spirits has helped fuel plans to expand beyond the Chestnut Hill and South End stores in 2015. “They’re thinking, ‘This is cool, it’s not just for the boys. I want to learn what should be a cocktail and what I should put an ice cube into.’ ”
Meaghan Sinclair and Harmony Dawn Kelly have seen a similar shift since founding their cocktail class and catering service, Booze Époque, to help drinkers bust “outside the rum and Coke, scotch on the rocks” rut, Sinclair says. “It’s great being two women, because a lot of bartenders are male, it can be a difficult niche for women to fall into. I think that’s exciting for people to see.”
In their signature cocktail class, they’ve seen more women reaching for darker spirits like bourbon and cognac. And on the catering side, there are frequent requests for local products—including spirits from local distillers, Sinclair says. She predicts more women will come to the forefront of the distilling industry, in part thanks to Boston’s excellent colleges. “There’s still a disproportionately larger amount of men. But it will change, with more and more women getting into science, technology, engineering and math. A lot of women who are head distillers come from those fields.”
As for Kallman, she hopes there will be more strides made by the time her three teenagers—including two daughters—reach drinking age.
“I still think there’s a long way to go. Change has been slow. We’ve seen it in politics, but we don’t see it in big businesses enough—we certainly see change in entrepreneurial businesses, though,” she says, citing statistics suggesting that women are opening more small businesses than men. “Entrepreneurial craft artisan businesses like the beer businesses, they’re making things for themselves or their friends, they’re innovating… it’s very real and tangible. That’s what I love about it. That’s what I’m passionate about.”