Most American distilleries buy neutral grain spirit in bulk from ethanol factories in the Midwest; many craft distillers even skip the part of making their own base alcohol, buying their neutral spirit after corn has been germinated, fermented, and distilled. But when Rob Forster, Chand Harlow, and Thomas Alexander launched Wonderbird Spirits in Taylor, Miss., in 2018, they didn’t want to do things that way.
The trio, who founded North Mississippi’s first distillery, wanted to be more sustainable. Shipping ingredients across the country wasn’t in their vision, so they looked into using sweet potatoes, as Mississippi is one of the country’s top producers of the tuberous roots. Then, they heard about two gin makers in Japan using rice as their fermentation substrate, and given that rice became an essential crop in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s when farmers looked for crops other than cotton that would thrive on boggy land, the idea clicked.
While searching for a rice producer connected to the local land and its history, the team linked up with Mike Wagner, owner of Two Brooks Farm, who farms rice on land he and his kids manage in the most economical and ecological ways they can. Wagner pointed the Wonderbird trio towards an aromatic jasmine rice that he thought would pair nicely with the botanicals that they were planning to use in their artisanal gin, which won two gold medals in the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
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VinePair talked to the group about rice, gin, and the ways they aim to protect the Earth as they distill.
1. What led you to implement sustainable practices at Two Brooks Farm?
Mike Wagner: I like the word “regenerative” instead of “sustainable.” I don’t want to sustain if it was already sh*t. I want to regenerate to make it better. My two kids are in the business with me, and instead of buying more land, my son bought a mill. That rice mill cuts our carbon footprint because the rice dries in the field. The most it travels is four miles from the field to the mill, and then the guys from Wonderbird drive over from Taylor and get it.
2: What did you think when you first heard about these friends who wanted to distill gin from rice in Mississippi?
MW: I knew Chand’s family, and when [Forster, Harlow, and Alexander] came to the office I knew those sons of guns meant business. They are all adorable; I love those boys. Jasmine rice is aromatic, and I knew that would be good for gin. I’m familiar with sake distillation and science and they are smart boys, so I thought it would work.
3. What reaction did you get when you initially told people in the industry your plans?
Rob Forster: I’ll be honest. A lot of distillers told us, “I bet you’re thinking about being grain-to-glass, right?” And we’d say, “Yes.” And they’d say, “Don’t be f***ing stupid.” Because how easy would it be for me to get on my cell phone right now and call a factory in Indiana and say, “I need 10,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit at Wonderbird on Monday morning,” and for us to just skip all the rice, skip all the koji, skip all the stripping runs, all that stuff, and just start infusing our botanicals into that neutral grain spirit. It’s just when you start to understand what goes into making your own base alcohol, it gives you a completely different level of appreciation for the product.
4. So, why do it? Is this fun?
RF: However anybody else wants to do their thing that’s totally up to them. But we wanted to make it by hand the old-fashioned way. We were purists, and we never wavered on that. We would get back in the car and we’d say, “I don’t understand why more people don’t want to do it from scratch.” It felt like cheating to us. But again, that’s our code, not others’, and we don’t judge others. It’s just, for us, there was never a question.
RF: There are only three distilleries in the world making gin from rice, and the other two are in Japan. We believe we are the only ones in the Western Hemisphere. That’s partly because rice is more expensive than corn and wheat. The fact that we do not have large costs to transport our rice is an advantage.
5. Some distillers choose to make gin because it doesn’t require aging (like whiskey). How did you come to the decision that this was the right product for you?
RF: Yes, we can have gin to sell in 20 days, versus what would be 20 years for brown liquor. But we were always going to be a gin house. We appreciate gin’s place in cocktail history. Juniper defines gin, and you can infuse anything else in. That is so exciting as a creator to make something truly your own. That was exciting to us as makers and creatives.
6. What was one of the surprises in the process?
RF: Once we fell in love with the Two Brooks jasmine rice and decided to make it our fermentation substrate, our next immediate thought was, “Oh, that really is going to require us to learn how to make raw sake.” People spend years or decades or lifetimes learning how to make raw sake. In addition to learning how to make gin, in addition to building a distillery, in addition to getting all of our licenses and all that stuff, we needed to learn this ancient Japanese rice beer tradition.
7: Are there other ways you feel your process connects you to your community?
RF: We source everything as locally as possible. Our still was fabricated in Eight Mile, Ala., just outside of Mobile. After we go through the fermentation process we have this grain mash, where all the alcohol has been removed but you’ve got all this beautiful, organic material. A local rancher who raises primarily pigs, but also some cows and chickens, takes it and he feeds it to his livestock. That way we get rid of our mess, and he gets food for their livestock. When we bought our 20 acres, we walked our property with a professional forager. He showed us things growing there like red clover tops like those that grow in roadway medians. The earthy chamomile was one of the botanicals we tried. We got all of this from what was a fallow field. Our gin is made from 10 different botanicals, each added separately for maximum precision in the formula.
8. Making gin from rice that is grown an hour away is sustainable in and of itself, as is using red clover from your field. You have another product with a hyper-local botanical, right? Wonderbird relies on other local ingredients, too, right?
RF: Mississippi doesn’t always get reputational accolades and is oftentimes thought of in a not-flattering light. We wanted to showcase that midsummer Mississippi Magnolia essence which is so alluring and beautiful. So I took magnolias (with permission) from trees on the University of Mississippi campus and we made the limited-edition magnolia gin. To produce such a beautiful thing from an area that sometimes gets spoken of negatively gives us a lot of pride.
9: How are folks finding you? Is it through liquor stores or bars and restaurants?
RF: We really believe that the on-premise sales [bars and restaurants] are critical because it’s such a high-end, handmade craft spirit that the Audreys of the world [Sean Brock’s signature Appalachian restaurant] and the Le Loup’s of the world [Ford Fry’s oyster bar] can appreciate. They can be our biggest cheerleaders. For a little distillery like us, they do a lot of volume. So, we don’t really look at it like they are just marketing for off-premise. A huge amount of our business is on-prem. We want to be at every liquor store, but getting the story out to high-end bars and restaurants is where our heads are.
10: How important is sustainability to telling that story?
RF: The fact we’re getting in a truck and driving 55 miles to the Delta and coming back, taking a local agricultural product, and creating our base alcohol is a huge piece of our story. It’s inherently about sustainability. That’s the first part of my story: Every Monday morning I get in a truck and drive to Sumner, Miss., and buy 1,500 pounds of jasmine rice. That’s where our story starts. For every batch.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.