Three Rivers Distilling Co. isn’t the kind of place you accidentally stumble upon.
It’s housed in a nondescript building on a nondescript street just south of downtown.
And it’s not the kind of place where you take friends for a rowdy night out. Indiana law forbids staff from offering samples of its vodka, gin, rum or whiskey – at least for its first three years in business.
It can’t even sell spirits directly to the public during that waiting period.
Instead, Three Rivers Distilling is a destination.
The first local distillery to open since Prohibition ended in 1933 has become a gathering place for offbeat business meetings and a burgeoning tourist attraction.
CEO Stephen Blevins said the distillery at 224 E. Wallace St. is the kind of place that adds to the region’s quality of place, which is considered vital for attracting young, talented workers. That’s what the region’s economic development officials are working hard to accomplish with the Regional Cities Initiative grant. Local restaurateurs and liquor stores are doing their part to create a unique local vibe by stocking Three Rivers Distilling’s vodka, white rum and gin. The first batches of whiskey and spiced rum are still aging in the distillery’s barrels.
The founders are dreaming big, hoping to build a national brand with offerings including Harvester Vodka, Summit City Gin and River City Rum.
"But we always want to be known as a Fort Wayne business," Blevins said. "I hope that’s something for locals to be proud of."
Finding a passion
Fort Wayne natives Blevins and Travis Kraick met when they were both members of the Air National Guard 122nd Fighter Wing. Blevins served 12 years. Kraick is currently deployed. It was Kraick who visited an Iowa craft distillery in 2013 and approached Blevins with the business idea.
"We both had a passion for craft spirits," Blevins said. "Without hesitation, I said, ‘I’m in.’ "
The co-founders did their homework. They visited various distilleries, studied the science behind making alcohol, and learned that corn and wheat are essential ingredients.
Blevins, 30, believes northeast Indiana gives Three Rivers Distilling a distinct advantage over the competition.
"We’re surrounded by some of the best grain in the country," he said.
The partners source grain from organic farms as close to Fort Wayne as possible. Sugarcane, which is needed for rum, is the only exception because it’s not native to Indiana. The company’s gin is a complex blend of 12 botanicals, including juniper, the evergreen that gives gin its distinctive flavor.
Nicky Nolot, co-owner of Tolon, said customers ask for Three Rivers Distilling’s products by name.
The restaurant at 614 S. Harrison St. stocks the local distillery’s vodka, gin and white rum. She described the vodka as "very drinkable, very smooth."
Her husband, Matthew Nolot, likes to drink gin and tonic. He prefers Three Rivers Distilling’s gin to the others they carry. Nicky Nolot likes that the gin has various flavors, not just juniper.
Rocky Deprimio, manager of Cap n’ Cork’s Covington Plaza store, also enjoys the subtler flavor in the distillery’s gin. It doesn’t have "that Christmas tree smell, if you will," that some competitors’ gins have, he said.
Blevins likes to play around with flavors. He recently bought some local blackberries and plans to experiment with them to flavor barrel-aged gin.
"It would be a true, raw ingredient – not a flavoring. That’s what we’re all about. We want to do new, creative things," he said, adding that some big distilleries can’t experiment in the same way because of their size.
So far, customer feedback has been positive, and Blevins encourages it. The staff is always trying to improve its processes and premium craft products to make them as smooth and drinkable as possible.
A critical part of the owners’ approach is building an eco-friendly business.
They found a building destined for demolition that fit their height and zoning requirements. The founders did most of the remodeling themselves, removing 40,000 pounds of debris during the process. They started the project in November 2015 and got the occupancy certificate in March.
The first batch was distilled in April by using one-of-a-kind metal equipment Blevins fabricated using techniques his machinist father taught him.
During the distillation process, they have to rapidly cool the mash mixture from 150 to 160 degrees down to 90 degrees. The staff is creating a closed-loop system so it can reuse the same water.
"Conservation is pretty important to us," Blevins said.
Every Friday, a local dairy farm picks up leftover grain to use for feed.
"It’s great to find another use for what would otherwise be a waste," said Blevins, who previously worked as an accountant for Steel Dynamics Inc. and its scrap operation, the former OmniSource.
Three Rivers Distilling outfitted its lounge with high-top tables, leather chairs, coffee tables and TVs. And they hung black and white photos from Fort Wayne back in the day.
"There’s a pretty rich history (of distilling) around here – legal and otherwise," Blevins said.
The founders wanted to create a place where people could relax and have casual conversations with friends. Or they can come and tap away on electronic devices, using the free Wi-Fi signal.
Blevins plans to install a complimentary gourmet coffee bar to keep visitors happy. He’s one of four full-time employees. Kraick, his co-founder, is still part time.
Indiana law forbids distilleries from selling or sampling their products directly to consumers during their first 36 months in business. Blevins has approached some state legislators about changing the law.
In the meantime, what they can do is partner with a caterer, put up a tent outside the building and have the caterer sell cocktails made with their products.
And they sell to a distributor. The distillery’s spirits are available in Belmont Beverage and Cap n’ Cork liquor stores and are on the drink menus of various local restaurants, including Chop’s Steaks & Seafood, Tolon, The Golden, JK O’Donnell’s, The Hoppy Gnome, Hideout 125 and Pedal City.
Cap n’ Cork’s Deprimio carries all three spirits now available and offers samples to customers trying to make up their minds. "The old try-before-you-buy routine," he said, adding that more than half who sample Three Rivers Distilling’s products end up buying them.
"I thought they were all nice and different, and it’s nice to see some homegrown stuff, if you will," Deprimio said. "The younger crowd likes mixing cocktails and stuff, and that’s really gotten them into the craft spirits."
"The vodka does very well," he added. "It’s smooth. It doesn’t bite. There’s no burn. You don’t get a lot of the medicinal, rubbing alcohol" taste and smell that some other vodkas have.
Deprimio will sample the whiskey and spiced rum when they’re available. He likes the idea of supporting local entrepreneurs, but space is limited, so the store won’t stock something Deprimio doesn’t think he can sell.
Scott Glaze, founder of JK O’Donnell’s and CEO of Fort Wayne Metals Research Products Corp., also believes in supporting local business. And he’s a fan of Three Rivers Distilling. The entrepreneur invested in the company last fall and is now a minority shareholder.
"I was very impressed with their professionalism and their knowledge and their passion for the distilling business," he said of Blevins and Kraick.
Glaze, who drinks gin, asked several people to taste the products and has received positive feedback.
"The quality is very good," he added.
Blevins is looking forward to the fall release of bourbon and spiced rum, which are being aged right now in previously unused charred white oak 5-gallon barrels. It’s more expensive to use smaller barrels, but it’s also faster, he explained.
Batches of bourbon, rye and single-malt whiskey will be aged in 53-gallon barrels. That will take two to seven years.
Three Rivers Distilling’s niche is premium products made in small batches for people who are willing to pay a little more to appreciate the more subtle notes and tones, Blevins said. It’s all about quality over quantity.
"I love good whiskey," he added.