Distiller Discussions: Ryan Schemmel of Corsair Distillery

Corsair Distillery

For this edition of Distiller Discussions, I welcome distiller Ryan Schemmel, Chief Business Development Officer of Corsair Distillery. Corsair Distillery produces two amazing and unique American whiskeys: Triple Smoke and Dark Rye. In addition, Corsair produces two mighty fine Gins: Barrelled Gin and American Gin. Ryan tells us about his role at Corsair, how Corsair started, what they are working on now, and what’s coming up in the future.

Scott:            Hey all you Whiskey Benders out there, thanks for being here and coming here for another edition of Distiller Discussions. Today I have Ryan Schemmel from Corsair Distillery – out of Nashville if I’m correct? That’s about 2 and a half hours from me which is pretty cool, I can’t wait to come to Nashville next time and see the distillery. Do you guys do tours?

Ryan:            We do, we actually have 2 distilleries in Nashville right now and we do tours at both.

Scott:            Awesome, I love it. Ryan tell us about who you are and what your role is with Corsair.

Ryan:            Sure! I’m Chief Business Development Officer for Corsair Distillery, I’ve been around for about 2 years so far and that’s just a fancy way of saying I’m over Sales and Marketing. I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years, I started out in finance and strategy and that sort of thing but slowly gravitated towards sales and marketing and that’s where my passion lies, and of course with a smaller business like Corsair your day doesn’t always fall into that functional remit of ‘sales and marketing’ it’s kind of all hands on deck – especially with Covid19, you know we’ve all had to expand our activities and what we do on a day to day basis.

Scott:            Yes, making it work. Did you guys do hand sanitizer like a lot of distilleries?

Ryan:            We did! Initially we gave it away for free: We took all of our heads and tails, you know the stuff that we didn’t want to put into a barrel and age and have people consume, typically we would destroy those, have them destroyed, but it’s good high proof alcohol so we actually started producing hand sanitizer right off the bat. Gave away to local community hospitals, folks homes, that sort of thing and we found out that there was a massive demand for it so we actually started producing for sale at the end of March.

Scott:            Wow. I, the collector in me thinks maybe in 20 or 30 years all these different whiskey hand sanitizers might be collectible but who knows!

Ryan:            I’ve actually seen on Facebook quite a few people outing that they’ve found Sazerac Hand Sanitizer in 1.75 (liters) and they are starting to collect it.

Scott:            That’s hilarious! It reminds me of during World War II Budweiser put water in beer cans and it was labelled water, I think those are very collectible now – historic nonetheless. Well tell us the Corsair origin story, I’m really excited to hear that – if you see me bopping around on my chair, I’m excited.

Ryan:            Yeah so it’s a way different story than most spirits companies have. We’re not a heritage-based company, it’s not based on recipes that are 150-200 years old. It was a couple of guys named Derek Bell and Andrew Webber, childhood friends, they had the passion of homebrew and home distilling and it just started to get a little bit more advanced in their garage. At the same time they were starting a biodiesel refining company, going around taking used oils from restaurant groups and whatnot, refining that down to biodiesel and a lot of the distillation process for biodiesel is actually similar or at least transferrable to spirits distillation and they knew that because they were doing the homebrew and the home distilling on the side, and as you can imagine biodiesel production is not the sexiest thing in the world, not the cleanest thing in the world, it literally stinks… so they were sitting around one day thinking “How can we take our knowledge and our passion for homebrewing and kind of convert this biodiesel company into spirits?. So obviously the biodiesel movement was all based on innovative solutions within a very established industry and that’s energy production, and they took that innovative mindset to the spirit world and they really wanted to make sure that anything that  they did distil, any products that they went to market with, were pretty much in that same vein of innovation and modernization of an established industry.

Scott:            Very good. When you say the bio… say that again, the bio?

Ryan:            Biodiesel?

Scott:            Biodiesel!

Ryan:            Exhaust fuel, for cars.

Scott:            Is that… like old McDonalds’ fry…

Ryan:            Absolutely.

Scott:            Okay, so it’s old oil, yeah. I can see how that would be… kinda nasty. Well now you’re in a much more pleasant business where things smell much better!

Ryan:            Yeah so back in 2008 they opened their first distillery in Bowling Green, Kentucky, while they were waiting to get a distillation license for Nashville, Tennessee. They actually ended up getting that in 2010 so they had the first distillation license in Nashville post Prohibition and that’s when they opened the first Nashville distillery. So they kept Bowling Green open, they opened up Nashville, and then after a couple more years they decided to open up another distillery in Nashville just to cope with production demands and that sort of thing and eventually a couple of years ago we actually shuttered Bowling Green. We were producing gin and absinthe and rum up there and shipping it down in bulk to Nashville and bottling it there, so from a production standpoint it just didn’t make sense.

Scott:            Yeah.

Ryan:            Now we’re down to the 2 distilleries in Nashville plus our malting house out on our farm.

Scott:            Wow. So wait you said the first licensed distillery since Prohibition in Nashville?

Ryan:            Yes.

Scott:            That’s awesome. I love that. Wow. Yeah a lot of opportunities opened up in Tennessee since the laws changed – what is that, like 10, 12 years ago?

Ryan:            Oh I’m not sure, that’s the one area of spirits that I’m not well versed in is the legal aspect.

Scott:            I’ll get back to everyone and all our Whiskey Benders with an answer on that because I need to know, because we have so many moonshine places around here now and you don’t have to age moonshine so it was easy for investors to get their… recoup their investment faster rather than waiting for a 4 year old, 6 year old or 8 year old expression to age out. Takes some steel weight through the um…

Ryan:            And deep pockets!

Scott:            Yeah! More on the deep pocket side I’d say! Well how are things looking today as far as with the distilleries and this Covid19 stuff and this unrest and strange stuff we’re going through these days?

Ryan:            Yeah it’s a, you know, it’s an ever evolving situation. Everybody likes to use these phrases like ‘the new normal’ and uh-

Scott:            ‘Now more than ever’!

Ryan:            [Laughs] but I don’t think that there is a new normal, it’s a fluid reality, it changes all the time anyway. Right now is very difficult especially for small craft distilleries, but I implore everybody out there to please support your local or your small craft brands. What Covid has done to the industry is really force a lot of consumption into big box firms that were already very wealthy, very well off, had those deep pockets that we were talking about. It’s because from a shopping perspective people are no longer doing discovery shopping because it wastes time; you’re exposing yourself longer in that retail environment; you’re not taking the time to read and educate and pick up bottles. And also with the online solutions or the digital solutions to retail shopping those platforms really weren’t designed for that discovery shopping aspect and so they don’t favor craft brands for the most part. And then when you talk about the on premise, the on premise is where craft brands are built, it’s where a lot of consumers get the opportunity to try products without putting the risk of paying $50 a bottle out there when you can buy a $10 cocktail and with that shut down obviously a lot of business goes out the door.

Scott:            Are you talking about restaurants and bars and … specialty high end places yes that’s true… I used to be in the restaurant industry and I just, I can’t imagine owning a restaurant that might have employed 20, 30 people, oof. Man.

Ryan:            It’s very tough – being in this industry for such a long time a lot of my friends, obviously all of my colleagues, are in this business and everybody is having a very difficult time. At the same time it doesn’t just impact the spirits industry: So when I implore people to buy local or support their craft brand sit’s not just in the spirits business it’s across all categories.

Scott:            Yeah. Well I’m gonna help out in the way I can which –

Ryan:            We do appreciate it!

Scott:            Yeah I have my hands on a bottle of Triple Smoke and Dark Rye which Jeff my sidekick and I were going to do a tasting and video that and get it up on YouTube and, we have a lot of fun with that. We’ve learned a lot and what I’ve learned is the first tasting is not necessarily the one you wanna film, you wanna do it again once your palate’s- once all the juices are flowing I guess. That first drink, you can never trust that one you have to wait for the second or third one. Anyway [laughs] Or maybe it’s just me!

Ryan:            No, I think that’s actually an interesting perspective when you’re, I’ve never been on the production side but I love the idea of how the barrels are selected and whatnot so every time I get a chance I do work with the distillery to taste new products and when you’re doing that you actually burn your palette the first, you know with the first dram, just to get is acclimated to the alcohol content.

Scott:            I’m not crazy! Well… I’ll have to ask my wife about that. Anyway well that I guess leads well into: What other expressions do you offer these days? I know that you’ve redesigned the look of the bottle which I think is outstanding, I love it, I was at Party City a couple of weeks ago and I saw some, I think they were the old designs, but I always remember the three guys in the suits. I figure if there’s whiskey on the shelf at the liquor store that company must be huge – that’s not really the case, I mean you guys are…

Ryan:            No it’s definitely not the case. Especially nowadays with the explosion of craft spirits across the United States. As consumers use the internet more to research and find out what taste profiles are out there and different grains that are being used it actually fragmented the overall spirits market just like you saw in craft beer back in the 90s. That went from 4, 5 major multinational companies to 6000 craft brewers across the United States.

Scott:            Ankerstein, Samuel Adams and oh, Sierra Nevada then all of a sudden- BOOM!

Ryan:            Yeah, for sure. So we, you know your question of or your perspective of are these brands huge you know, to give you some context: We produce about 15,000 cases a year and to a lot of consumers that’s probably gonna sound like a lot. You know my family when I sell them how many cases we produce or how many barrels we lay down, they think it’s astronomical. The reality is you know, small brand goes all the way from 0 to 250,000 cases. For 250,000 still in this industry is considered a very small craft brand.

Scott:            Wow. I did not know that! That does sound like a lot, and you fit 12 bottles in a case if I’m correct.

Ryan:            Well ours are 6 bottles in a case but the industry standard that you look at, CE’s is 9 litre cases so 12 bottle case, yeah.

Scott:            Pretty good. I’m learning every day, I love it. Can you rattle off other flavors or expressions that you guys have?

Ryan:            Sure! So when I started two years ago we actually had 25 different brews and that’s a nightmare to manage operationally, and all the dry goods that go with those. Managing your distributors, educating them on what all the brands or all the different expressions mean. So we pared back down to what we call our Pour Four and these are the ones that actually represent about 80% of our overall business and have the largest broad appeal across multiple markets. So that’s Triple Smoke which is an American single malt whiskey that uses 3 different kinds of fuel to smoke the malted barley and that’s peat from Scotland, beech wood from Germany and … wood from Wisconsin. Even though it says Triple Smoke it’s not 3 amounts of smoke; it’s 3 different kinds of smoke that give different flavor profiles. It is a little bit smoky but it’s not overly smoky like a Laphroaig or like a … or something like that. So that’s our number one spirit by far – number 2 is the dark rye. I’m excited for you guys to try that too it’s my favorite out of the bunch: It’s our version of a rye whiskey but we malt all the rye that goes in there meaning we let the rye grain start to sprout – it turns the starch in there into sugar. When you do that it takes away that grassy green note that you see in most ryes, but our rye doesn’t taste like a traditional rye it doesn’t have those grass notes, it keeps all of those spice notes in the back. And then we toast the rye which brings out some dark cocoa, some coffee and some caramel flavors. When you try it you’re gonna get a very robust, complex rye as opposed to fairly straight neat grassy rye.

Scott:            Yeah I’m looking forward to it because I went through what a lot of whiskey drinkers go through you know, they start with like Crown Royal and then they move to Jack and then they move to ooh, Maker’s Mark and then for me oh the jump went to single barrels and I like Blanton’s, but when Blanton’s is getting boring for me. I think the goal for a lot of people is to mute the flavors and have it be easy to drink and I’m at the point now where it’s like ‘challenge me!’, I want higher proof, I want, I want to be able to pick our flavors and maybe I don’t even like it but I like the experience of being able to pick out the notes and things like that.

Ryan:            Yeah so you’re actually a different type of target customer – you’re an afficionado, there’s the entry level or generally, our general market customer that likes things that are easy on the palate, we call them “generally palatable”. They’re typically a little bit more sweet and have a little bit less complexity, a bit less harshness and not to say that those aren’t great products, they are fantastic  products and they actually recruit a lot of people into brown spirits so we’re thankful that they’re there. We’re known for that innovative kind of pushing the boundaries theme so we try to steer clear of those kind of recruiter type palettes.

Scott:            The gateway.

Ryan:            Yeah. So our ‘gateway’ product into the Corsair family is really around gin. So to round out our top 4 is American Gin, so it’s an American style gin, it’s very citrus forward. We use a vapour basket installation system as opposed to a maceration system: Macerating just means that you’re boiling all the botanicals in the gin itself which extracts a lot more flavor but also a lot more oils and tannins from stems and whatnot that are in those botanical plants. By using a vapor system the gin is distilled through those botanicals and so it’s a much lighter, muted profile. And then we offset that with a lot of citrus actually and some cucumber.

Scott:            Oh wow.

Ryan:            A lot of people that don’t like gin they do enjoy our gin because it’s very mild.

Scott:            I’ll have to try that: I like a good gin and tonic and I’m a Tanqueray guy but, and the only reason is if I branch out and try something else I’m usually like “Ugh, what is in that?!” and I’m so used to Tanqueray’s flavor, but yeah the cucumber aspect intrigues me.

Ryan:            Maybe we’ll send you a bottle and you can try that offline.

Scott:            I like that!

Ryan:            And then we do have a barrel aged version of that American gin, it’s not exactly the same botanical profile because it does go into New American Oak barrels and not everything really works well with wood, we do take out some of the citrus (not all of it) we leave  some orange in there and a little bit of lemon but we take out the lime, we take out the cucumber it doesn’t necessarily work well with wood, and then there are a few other botanicals that we throw in there and those are really Fall forward spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and whole vanilla wheat. It’s a very different type of gin.

Scott:            Earthy, yeah, those make more sense with wood. How long do you age that?

Ryan:            Only about 6 months, just to pick up a little bit of the color and a little bit of the oak profile.

Scott:            Really cool. I like that. Do you have any plans for adding to the fourth, a fifth one or anything new?

Ryan:            Yeah, we actually have what we call our support line and the only difference between core and support is really how big an effort we make from a marketing perspective. But our support line we do have a vanilla bean vodka which is just ultra-pure vodka that’s steeped with whole Madagascar vanilla beans for 3 weeks. No sugar added so it’s very dry but very heavy aroma and flavor of vanilla. We have a spiced rum we make and we have a red absinthe. Red absinthe is fairly typical of absinthe, very historic kind of recipe for it, but we do add a lot of citrus to that and the red hibiscus flower to add that red color which is fairly different in that category. And then I would say the last product that we are focussing on in the short term is Tennessee Single Malt and that’s gonna be a very limited release, an allocated product. We’re only gonna make about 120 cases of that this year and we’ll have an edition of that every single year. That one is very similar to triple smoke in that it’s an American single malt, there is no smoke, we’re not using any smoke to arrest the development of that grain, we’ve aged it for a little bit over a year in New American Oak and we’ve aged it for a little over a year in ex Caribbean Rum casks to add some sweetness and some complexity that way.

Scott:            That is so cool. Well I will be watching for that one because I like your, you said it was a single malt?

Ryan:            Yes. It’s 100% 2 row malted barley.

Scott:            Awesome, yes. Well we’ll keep all you Whiskey Benders up to date once that gets out there because I’m following Corsair closely.

Ryan:            I’ll send you a picture of that one, it’s probably the sexiest pack that we have.

Scott:            Really? Okay, great! Any new markets you’re going into and the single malt you just mentioned, is that Tennessee only or is that reaching out further?

Ryan:            The Tennessee Single Malt will, it’ll certainly have a presence in Tennessee. We sell directly out of our distilleries so anybody in Nashville please stop by, pick up a bottle, try some product, take a pour – it will certainly be in that market, probably in the airport as well, and then aside from that it’ll be in major markets so we’re gonna target Chicago, Houston, New York and LA.

Scott:            Super.

Ryan:            But in general we’re in around 30 markets in the United States: Our strategy really is to over develop each market that we go into, make sure that we have a stable long term business there before we start to move out and it doesn’t always work because you have customers asking for your product and you have distributors coming to you asking if they can represent you, but right now we’re really focussed on those 30 markets.

Scott:            Yeah. Focus is good, the definition of focus is the ability to say no!

Ryan:            Yep. They say it’s tough to do – especially as a small company, you’re saying no to money!

Scott:            It’s really hard! I have one last question and this one is sort of close to my heart because it’s, I built a career on digital marketing and ecommerce and as a collector it’s really hard to collect if you’re not shipping and I just wanted your take on what’s your strategy for ecommerce and shipping laws and that whole mess?

Ryan:            Yeah it certainly is a mess. I will say though I am very optimistic and excited about all of the at least interim changes to some of these laws that have taken place. A lot of states during Covid have taken the opportunity to lift those direct shipment rules at least within the state, typically when that happens like Kentucky just went where you can ship directly from a distillery to your home in Kentucky, there are 10 other reciprocal markets that they’re allowed to ship to as well. And then those markets are allowed to ship to a Kentucky resident reversely. So there’s a lot of movement right now in how distilleries can actually ship and over the last 5 years there’s been quite a bit of movement outside of the distillery realm at the next tier down with companies like Drisley trying to solve this with local delivery – the challenge there is you have to be a distributor in that state and have a presence and a retail account that uses Drisley to actually get that product delivered. Then there’s other companies like Speakeasy, like Thirsty, that’re also trying to solve this problem and we’re actually going to implement our first online ecommerce flagship in August and so we’ve partnered with Speakeasy, a company out of California, so that people can come to our website, shop around, see what the products are, actually complete their shopping cart transaction right there and then all those products will be shipped out of California from a company called Speakeasy; and they’re able to ship to 31 markets across the United States.,

Scott:            Awesome, so you guys don’t have to deal with creating an entire back office shipping solution?

Ryan:            Exactly.

Scott:            Love that, it’s very-

Ryan:            But we’re very excited about that! Hopefully one day all distilleries will be able to ship direct to you, just like wine.

Scott:            I hope so. I think a lot of the dumb laws are still holdovers from Prohibition and everyone wants their piece of tax money.

Ryan:            Yep that’s 100% true! All of that tax money though – I’m not trying to speak negatively about the government, don’t take it that way – but all of that tax revenue that goes into each one of these tiers of the route to market in spirits directly impacts the customer and you know, the customers are gonna foot the bill for every one of those. We pay taxes as we ship the product to the distributor, the distributor pays taxes as they ship it to a retailer and a retailer charges you sales tax when it comes in.

Scott:            Wow. Might have to do a Boston Tea Party. No, I’m not throwing any away! [laughs] Well you know what Ryan this has been fantastic, I’ve learned more than I expected to learn and you’re a man of great knowledge and someone who certainly knows their product, I’m very impressed and I look forward to speaking with you again as new expressions come out and I’ll let you know when we’ve done our tasting, should get that published next week sometime, we’re getting better and better at it as we do them! But yeah thank you so much, and I wanna say thanks to all the Whiskey Benders watching this and stay tuned for more. Thanks Ryan!

Ryan:            Thanks Scott. Bye!


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