Alcohol artisan Jim Blansit taps into the budding micro-distillery industry
Jim Blansit, owner of Copper Run Distillery in Walnut Shade, often gives tours of his two-year-old plant, which is only the fourth of its kind in Missouri.
Copper Run Distillery specializes in corn whiskey, aka moonshine, but also produces molasses rum and vodka.
Branson native Jim Blansit is an artisan by heritage.
He comes from a family of wine makers and farmers, and he was raised on the ideals of homemade goods.
For Blansit, that meant dabbling in beer making as a hobby and later in commercial wine and beer production. Now, he’s applied his Old World style to whiskey, running Copper Run Distillery on the former family farm in Walnut Shade.
“We truly ate off the land,” Blansit says. “We raised our own food.”
The two-year-old small-batch distillery on five acres specializes in corn whiskey, aka moonshine, but also produces molasses rum and vodka.
Last month, Copper Run began selling alcohol by the drink in its on-site tasting room to add to its bottle sales, which comprise 95 percent of revenues, which Blansit declined to disclose. He’s now positioning the young company to tap into the wholesale business.
“We’re going to get into wholesaling to bars and restaurants,” Blansit says, noting that early distribution points are at the Brown Derby International Wine Center in Springfield and Palate Wine Shop in Branson.
Copper Run holds one of the nearly 300 distilled spirits plant licenses nationwide and is among four in Missouri, according to the American Distilling Institute. In 2003, ADI says only 63 distillery licenses were issued, and the group projects more than 400 within five years.
“It’s an exciting time in the spirits world,” says Blansit, whose Missouri peers are in Kansas City and St. Louis. “I’m a little ahead of the curve.”
Capturing the spirits
Blansit was schooled first in the wine business at Stone Hill Winery, at age 19, and then in craft brewing in the early 1990s in San Diego and San Francisco. A move back to the Springfield area sent him working at Rye Bread & Apple Core.
After a stint in real estate that fizzled with the market, Blansit in 2007 began to research microdistilleries and was hooked on the idea of introducing the first in the Ozarks since Prohibition’s end in 1933. A year later, he began lining up his liquor permits through Taney County. In April 2008, he tapped Regions Bank for a $90,000 home equity loan to fund construction and started building the distillery a month later.
Once licensing was approved and with help from his father, Jim, and friend David Alviar, Copper Run Distillery began production in May 2009. The first batch was bottled for sale by the end of the year.
Blansit says the flagship moonshine, made from locally sourced corn and wheat, can be ready for sale in two weeks, start to finish.
The No. 2-selling rum is made with blackstrap molasses and aged in sherry casks used by Stone Hill Winery. “I go down there as fast as I can to pick them up and fill them full of our rum,” he says.
Copper Run’s 80-proof vodka is diluted with Ozarks mineral water, a boon to the process because it is without iron. “The criteria for vodka is that it’s flavorless, odorless and colorless,” Blansit says.
Next on Copper Run’s docket is bourbon whiskey, which requires two years of aging. Blansit says his bourbon barrels will be ready to open and sell by fall 2012.
“We’re maxed out around 100 gallons of spirits per week,” Blansit says, noting he and his four staff members produce about 60 gallons, or one barrel, of moonshine and 40 gallons of vodka per week. “It’s easy to experiment with small batches and create these whiskeys that no one’s tasted in hundreds of years. It’s going back to the way people used to distill and using the local ingredients they had at the time.
“If you were a wheat farmer, you made wheat whiskey. We’re looking at having a family of whiskeys, each one using a different variety of corn.”
He says Missouri is among the few states to permit a spirits producer, wholesaler and retailer under one roof, and he’s taking full advantage.
Earlier this year, Blansit borrowed against the equity in the business for a $75,000 second note, allowing for completion of a self-described speakeasy tasting room. Regions Bank again provided the financing.
Branson branch manager David Kean says Regions accepted the loan risk for three reasons: Blansit’s industry knowledge and strict adherence to distilling laws; real estate was used as collateral; and niche industry such as distilling are appealing.
“Regions has a big appetite for small-business loans,” says Kean, noting his branch signs about one small-business loan a month and lends $150,000 per quarter.
Along with sales by the bottle and by the drink, Blansit sells by the barrel, and has amassed a club of 44 barrel owners, who age their whiskey at home.
“The clear moonshine takes on a beautifully deep amber color and absorbs flavors,” he says of the six-month process that produces hints of vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, as well as leather, tobacco and burnt marshmallows from the charred oak barrels purchased from Gibbs Bros. Cooperage in Hot Springs, Ark.
He says the trick to aging the bourbon at home is only pouring out half the barrel every six months and topping it off with new whiskey. “The old whiskey tells the new whiskey how to taste,” he says.
Blansit buys the larger, 55-gallon barrels, from Independent Stave Co. in Lebanon.
He’s tabbed Springfield marketing firm Creativore LLC to develop Copper Run’s identity off the farm.
“Jim’s best asset is Jim,” says Whitney Corliss, his strategy partner at Creativore. “It was our job to bring him to life, bring the same intimate passion he has without him there.”
Creativore designed Copper Run’s logo, bottle labels and brand identity. Last week, Blansit filmed a 30-second TV commercial to air on KSPR.
“We’ve been word of mouth. It’s been friends of friends supporting us,” he says. “We’re just getting to the point now where we can begin advertising.”
by Eric Olson of Springfield Business Journal (linked)