The ranks of homegrown New Orleans liquor brands are set to grow again this fall, though the latest addition already has its sights set far beyond the local market.
Bootleg Spirits is slated to open a distillery in September in an industrial stretch of Mid-City, with a plan to produce a craft vodka to the tune of 150,000 cases a year initially.
The new company is a partnership between Robbie Vitrano, an entrepreneur who has helped launch a string of successful New Orleans brands, and Gordon Stewart, who has a background in brewing in his native Scotland and in business consulting here in his adopted home.
They believe Bootleg Spirits can stand out in the fast-growing market of craft distilleries with a brand that speaks to quality and authenticity but that also is built from the start for wider distribution, both nationally and overseas.
“There are lots of boutique brands there, but they are boutiques,” Vitrano said. “The interesting vector is to embody that spirit but take it to a bigger scale.”
Private investors are funding the launch of Bootleg Spirits, which Vitrano described as a multimillion-dollar project, without specifying the precise budget.
“We’ll be able to punch reasonably heavy for a startup distillery,” Stewart said.
They are building their distillery at 3918 Gravier St., in a 23,000-square-foot warehouse just off Tulane Avenue. When complete, windows facing the adjacent expressway will give motorists a view of copper stills inside.
Stewart, a former Xavier University business professor, earned a degree as a master brewer in Chicago, where he also studied distilling. Prior to moving to New Orleans, he operated a brewpub in his hometown of Glasgow. He said his interest in both brewing and distilling stems from the same passion for hands-on manufacturing.
“I’m a bit of a Neanderthal when it comes to that,” Stewart said. “I want to build stuff. I want to employ people in this city. I come from a city that was built on manufacturing; that’s all I knew growing up.”
With Stewart’s thick brogue, Scotch might seem a more intuitive undertaking than vodka for his new distillery. But by starting with vodka, Bootleg Spirits will be able to get its first products on the shelves more quickly. Unlike whiskey, vodka requires no aging. And vodka is a corner of the liquor market where the partners feel Bootleg Spirits has strong growth potential.
“There’s a great white space in the vodka market, one that a strong brand can fill,” Vitrano said.
Vodka is the world’s most popular spirit, and the partners believe that a brand based on craft production, transparent sourcing of raw materials and a connection to New Orleans heritage will resonate with younger drinkers.
“The generation coming up now, they want to know the truth behind their brands,” Vitrano said. “The questions they’re asking are the same that you bring to cuisine: What are the origins of the ingredients? What’s the process? Who are the people behind it?”
Stewart said Bootleg Spirits’ vodka will start with red winter grain, and that the company will mill, mash, distill, bottle and ship from the same facility to maintain control over the entire operation.
“The process (of vodka production) is very simple, but it has to be exact,” he said.
Craft distilling is now booming, following in the footsteps of craft brewing. The American Craft Spirits Association, a trade group, defines craft distilleries as those producing fewer than 315,451 cases of standard 750-milliliter bottles per year.
The ranks of such craft distillers around the country have exploded from just 60 in 2000 to 500 today, according to the group’s data, and that number is expected to double by the end of 2016.
That growth is evident around New Orleans. For instance, in April, NOLA Brewing founder Kirk Coco announced plans for New Orleans Libations and Alcohol Distilling Co., or NOLA Distilling. He and his team plan to begin producing vodka, gin and white whiskey in October.
While Bootleg Spirits will begin with only vodka, there are plans to produce a whiskey down the line.
“My Scottish expression in this would be remiss if we didn’t,” Stewart said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.