“I love to experiment,” Rock Town’s founder and CEO Phil Brandon said. “We’ve done a lot of flavour exploration, for sure.”
Those explorations include Arkansas Bourbon, Peated Arkansas Straight Bourbon, La Harpe Low Rye Straight Bourbon, Four Grain Sour Mash Straight Bourbon, Barley Straight Bourbon, Chocolate Malt Straight Bourbon, Single Barrel Chocolate Malt Straight Bourbon, Golden Promise Straight Bourbon, Single Barrel Rye, and Cognac Cask Single Malt.
All of the whiskies are non-chill filtered and most are available in 92 proof (46% ABV) and single-barrel, cask-strength versions. The flagship Arkansas Bourbon is also available as a four-year-old Bottled in Bond.
“92 proof is high enough to appeal to the whisky aficionado but low enough to appeal to the everyday man,” Brandon says in a calm, confident, friendly drawl. “You get tons of flavour at 92 proof without watering it down to 80 proof.”
Rock Town’s three varieties of gin are also of note. Brandon’s Gin is juniper and citrus forward, coming in classic and barrel-rested styles. The contemporary Feast in the Field Gin is a charitable collaboration with Heifer International, a Little Rock-based non-profit that provides livestock and agricultural training to third-world countries to promote sustainability.
“The idea is a heifer can actually do more alive, instead of being eaten, by helping a community to sustain itself,” said Brandon.
Rock Town Distillery is one of the few that have the bragging rights of being the first legal distillery in their state since Prohibition. During the Great Recession, Brandon saw the writing on the wall as the company he worked for was shrinking. Knowing his time would come, he started seeking funds to start a distillery. His planning paid off, literally.
“In November of ’09 I got laid off from my job and received an SBA loan basically within the same week of each other,” said Brandon.
Brandon launched Rock Town Distillery in 2010, making whisky, vodka, and gin. He lobbied to have the state laws changed, making it legal in 2011 for distilleries to sell direct to consumers.
“I started distilling under the laws which were already in place. You could distil in Arkansas with a permit, but you couldn’t sell your product direct to the public in your tasting room. You could only sell through distribution,” said Brandon. “So, a year after starting, I got that law changed to allow us to sell by the bottle.”
Brandon worked with the legislature again in 2017 and got the state laws changed once more to allow distilleries to sell by the drink. In 2018, Rock Town moved to its current location, about two miles from the state capitol, adding a cocktail bar.
The backbar and bar are decorated in barrel staves, resembling the sandstone cliffs along the Arkansas River. A turntable and collection of vintage vinyl behind the bar set a rockin’ mood. The seasonal cocktail menu changes twice a year. Though it features dozens of creative cocktails, the bestseller is the Old Fashioned, which was ordered more than 7,000 times last year. Brandon’s usual tipple is a Philzerac, a variation on the Sazerac with more than a rinse of Herbsaint left in the glass.
About one quarter of Rock Town’s sales come from the tasting room, which is no small amount. Rock Town releases more than 50,000 nine-litre cases a year, making it a large craft distillery by the American Craft Spirits Association’s standards. Most of Rock Town’s extensive portfolio (75 SKUs) is distributed in 16 states, with online retailers reaching out to more states. Its whiskies have been released by UK independent bottlers the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Some of Rock Town’s seeming invisibility may have more to do with being in a city that is not in most people’s vacation plans, two hours west of Memphis and four-and-a-half hours northeast of Dallas. Just as most Americans are unlikely to be able to find Switzerland on a map of Europe, when asked to locate Arkansas, they might just as easily point to Missouri or Oklahoma.
While not quite reaching the Rodney Dangerfield level of “don’t get no respect”, Rock Town flies under the radar by not attracting the same attention as some industry darlings. Its wide distribution and sales success have been achieved by producing a line of well-made and unique whiskies that, above all, taste good.