Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price toured Onyx Moonshine’s newly opened speakeasy tasting room in East Hartford, CT, sampled some moonshine and whiskey, and then sat down with Adam von Gootkin, Co-Founder of Onyx Spirits Co. to discuss what it’s really like to be a “moonshiner.”
PRICE: Onyx Moonshine has long history, maybe you can distill it down, sorry for the pun.
VON GOOTKIN: Sure. In the 1860s, my family ran a distillery call Chafee Distilling. It was a legally operating distillery that closed in 1864 because they shipped a large batch of moonshine and whiskey to Canada and someone forgot to pay the taxes.
During prohibition, my family had a hotel in Middletown called the Chafee Hotel, which had a speakeasy in the basement. The family had a ferry run every day from Manhattan to Middletown bringing people— and we imagine, probably booze in as well. That closed at the end of prohibition in 1933. The hotel was sold 10 or 15 years later.
So the family was out of the business for a long time, but now we’re back, we’re legal, and we are here to stay.
PRICE: Whose idea was it to get the distillery up and running again?
VON GOOTKIN: My business partner Pete Kowalczyk and I had a few business ventures in Connecticut; it’s been our home our whole life, and we knew we wanted to produce something here.
We were frustrated that 99% of the liquor people in Connecticut were consuming was imported from all corners of the globe, especially because we used to have such a vibrant distilling economy here. At one point in the late 1700s there were more than 45 distilleries operating in Greater Hartford. Whiskey, moonshine, rum, and gin were being produced here in vast quantities. Prohibition really killed that and destroyed the industry. Now it’s mostly billion-dollar global portfolio companies that own all the liquor brands.
So the idea for us was not only to produce something that was authentic to the area—moonshine and whiskey, which have been produced here in Connecticut for hundreds of years—but also to do something kind of challenging. We wanted to employ local people, invest in the community, have as many local suppliers as possible, and really make our product a Connecticut/New England thing.
And then, finally, we wanted to be the first to produce a classy, ultra-premium moonshine. We’re not packing it full of sugar and chemicals or making it in the backwoods in a mason jar. We wanted it to be high end.
Those concepts together for us have been the key drivers for this venture. Dipping into our own families’ past as well as Connecticut’s to produce one of the only things that is authentically New England, spirits-wise.
PRICE: What year did the distillery actually open?
VON GOOTKIN: Onyx Moonshine started in 2011.
PRICE: And when did the speakeasy tasting room open?
VON GOOTKIN: We celebrated with a soft opening Saturday, November 21, 2015.
PRICE: Tell me about that time between the company being founded and the speakeasy opening.
VON GOOTKIN: It was a two-year process before we opened. It took us about a year to get the recipe right. We researched moonshines from all over New England and historic books.
We did two years of research and development, business planning, and meeting all of the federal and state compliance. Distilleries are very highly regulated by the federal government. Our product represents a significant amount of tax
money, statewide too.
People don’t realize that it’s actually a federal crime to produce any liquor at home. You can make beer and wine at home, but you cannot have a distillery. So there are a lot of regulations.
But there was no language in the legislation to allow a distillery to have a tasting room here in Connecticut. We wanted a way to kind of welcome people into our “home,” educate them about how our products are made, show them how to enjoy them, and just have some fun.
PRICE: And you worked to change the legislation.
VON GOOTKIN: Right. I’m the president of the Connecticut Small Brand Council, which is a group of wholesalers, retailers, and producers, such as distilleries from Connecticut that is primarily focused on ensuring that the legislation is there to support small brands and small businesses from retailers to restauranteurs to wholesalers.
One of our first tasks was to change the legislation that would allow a distillery to habituate with the tasting room on the premise, like a winery or a brewery. Two years ago we got the approval for a tasting room to operate, and then in 2015 we received approval for us to sell bottles here—it would’ve been rather preposterous to have people come in, taste the products, and then not be able to buy them.
So we got that legislation changed. And a big part of our intent in changing that legislation was to make environment here in Connecticut more conducive to having more distilleries open throughout the state.
PRICE: Onyx Moonshine has national acclaim. How are people finding out about the product?
VON GOOTKIN: We have a policy here: we do almost zero traditional advertising. We do not ever run ads. Onyx has always been a word of mouth brand, it’s been organic growth.
I just got a call from a distributor in Georgia that wants to bring us in as a result of customers who have been buying our product online. So, we are available in distribution in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, upstate New York, and now Georgia.
Customers around the country can buy Onyx through a local retail partner in Connecticut that runs drinkbetter.com.
PRICE: So you have really evolved.
VON GOOTKIN: We’ve grown cautiously and we have controlled the growth. We didn’t want to grow too fast because our production capacity is small. We have a commitment—an obsession really—with quality over quantity. So it’s been an organic growth, people telling people, people bringing the product on vacation. People have brought our product around the world and they’re proud of it being from Connecticut
PRICE: Let’s talk about being in Connecticut and how that’s shaping the business. You were saying Onyx is everywhere, but you had a commitment to making it be produced in the Hartford area.
VON GOOTKIN: The Chafee side of my family has been here in Connecticut since the mid-1600s. I think what makes business worth doing is really a genuine commitment to authenticity around the brand. So for us by the creation of Onyx, we wanted to create something that was special and also something that we could all be proud of—that it’s from Connecticut.
Every bottle of our product has a sketching of the Charter Oak tree on it. It’s very much a tribute to Connecticut and the fact that this is such an old state and we’ve got a lot to be proud of.
PRICE: We certainly do.
VON GOOTKIN: In the last four or five years since we’ve opened Onyx I’ve seen a lot of craft brands come out that are doing some great stuff including Peel Liqueur and the Hartford Flavor Company. Even outside of the beverage space there’s a lot of great innovation happening. Hartford Denim Company is a great example.
PRICE: In what ways are you actively involved with the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in the Hartford area?
VON GOOTKIN: I’m on a couple of boards. One of them is the Viscogliosi Entrepreneurship Center at Manchester Community College, which is working to really help inspire other young entrepreneurs in the Greater Hartford area.
And I’m involved in another project called StartUP Bristol where we got $50,000 together for a business plan competition to bring people who have great ideas but don’t have the funds to the table, give them some seed money, and help them get started.
And of course that was my motivation for writing my book, Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit. I wanted to inspire people to take a leap of faith and start their project.
PRICE: Let’s talk about the book. It discusses your relationship to being an entrepreneur and how you’ve merged that part of your life with the history behind your family and the distillery.
VON GOOTKIN: The whole concept with writing the book was to discuss all the lessons we learned along the way. It’s really a great read, especially for anyone who’s trying to get into the beverage industry or really anyone who’s getting into entrepreneurship and not sure where to start. I share a lot of tactics about how to raise money, how to attract a team, all that stuff.
I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. I was involved with entrepreneurship before I even knew what I was doing. I tell some of the stories in the book. My journey with entrepreneurship has been a lifelong thing. I failed out of college after one semester. I bombed miserably. It wasn’t for me. This is why am spending so much time at the helping other entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is such a valid, exciting, fulfilling career path.
PRICE: And it’s not necessarily a straight shot.
VON GOOTKIN: It’s not a straight shot at all, ever. It doesn’t work that way.
I think the most valuable, successful business ventures usually come from frustration with the way something is done, the status quo—Onyx included. It came from our frustration that Connecticut was importing all of the state’s liquor. Why do we do that when we can make it right here? And we can make it the way we used to make it right here in Connecticut.
PRICE: A lot of entrepreneurs I’ve met have told me, “I wanted to do it better or differently.”
VON GOOTKIN: Absolutely. An improvement on the status quo. Entrepreneurs are expressions of that. We’re creators, we create new realities. It’s like all of the world is a software program and, in my opinion, it’s like entrepreneurs are the ones who are writing the coding for what’s being made tomorrow. They’re the ones who are creating the products and the services that change your life.
Every single creation from the phone in my pocket to the clothes we’re wearing to how this room is heated was driven by entrepreneurs. So entrepreneurs really create the blueprint for daily life, the software mapping of what we experience.
PRICE: What’s next for Onyx Moonshine?
VON GOOTKIN: We’re excited about our speakeasy tasting room. We’re going to be booking bands at some point, and we plan to partner up with some local restaurants for food options soon. We’re also going to be allowing for corporate bookings.
Other than that, we certainly we have a plan for growth and expansion—a controlled plan where really the focus for us is being able to serve our current customers and keep the quality as high as we can. We’ve got some other exciting projects in the works too.
PRICE: Final question. Can you share a cocktail recipe?
VON GOOTKIN: Sure. I actually share a cocktail recipe at the end of every chapter of my book. My favorite way to enjoy Onyx is simply on the rocks: Pour 2 oz. of Onyx Moonshine over ice, sip and enjoy.
Here’s a recipe for a drink that was one of America’s first cocktails during prohibition:
The Bee’s Knees
- 1 ½ oz. Onyx Moonshine
- ½ oz. orange juice
- ¼ oz. lemon juice
- 1 tsp. honey or honey simple syrup
Shake and pour on the rocks.
The Onyx Moonshine tasting room is open Fridays from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 6:00 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m.
Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit is available from Amazon.com. Read a book review by Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price.