Brad Dickson sits behind his desk in a T-shirt and shorts, the same outfit he plans to wear when he spends spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida, for the first time next month. It's only 2 p.m., but the 46-year-old plumber has gone through nearly a gallon of margaritas. The bright-blue shark on his shirt tells people to "GET SHARKFACED."
"I'm a little older than the average spring-break demographic, which my wife won't let me forget," Dickson says.
But average spring-breakers make up the perfect demographic for his other business: Sharkbite Cocktails LLC, an Olathe distillery that has been selling Shark Attack frozen margaritas in a tube since April 2010. Dickson is tan and solidly built. He looks more like a scuba instructor (which he is) than a Johnson County father of three (which he also is).
In a beige office park within hailing distance of the Great Mall of the Great Plains, Dickson walks through a galley kitchen that serves as his cocktail laboratory. A small wooden sign over the sink reads: "Tequila makes women's clothes come off." The room's three filler machines are capable of pushing out 30,000 foot-long foil tubes a day, supplying a product now available in 15 states. He's trying to nail down his production schedule, knowing that he'll be on the road for six of the next eight weeks.
Dickson's Sharkbite Cocktails is one of three microdistilleries (the industry term for boutique liquor operations) launched on the Kansas side of the metro area in the past four years. Good Spirits Distilling, which makes Clear 10 Vodka, opened in Olathe in 2009, and Dark Horse Distillery is set to begin selling white whiskey and vodka in Lenexa this spring. Kansas is riding the tail end of a nationwide trend with craft spirits, according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade and educational organization for craft outfits such as Sharkbite.
"We've been through a beer renaissance. We've seen it with food and wine for sure. Now, spirits is the last industry to go through that renaissance," Owens says. "And Kansas is a little bit under the radar. There are entrepreneurs in our culture, and they have the DNA in them to distill. I'm pulling people from the professional ranks who want to be producing a real product versus working in an office."
He estimates that there are 397 U.S. microdistilleries, with another three to five opening each month. The first Kansas microdistillery was licensed seven years ago, when Seth Fox launched High Plains Distillery in the backyard of MGP Ingredients, the alcohol giant that contract-distills McCormick's 360 Vodka and reported more than $76 million in sales last quarter. By comparison, Fox's Atchison distillery ships to eight states and sold about 25,000 cases in 2010 of his Most Wanted and Fox brands of vodka, gin, whiskey and tequila.
There's an old joke about how easy it is to get a drink in Kansas — you just need to get in your car, drive a few miles and go right across the state line into Missouri. But a lot has changed since Carry Amelia Nation got her 6-foot frame behind an ax and started taking it to saloon doors more than a century ago.
The idea that Kansas is a dry state stems from the state's decision to be the first in the union to outlaw alcohol, in 1881. Liquor enthusiasts and retailers have been chipping away at the state's blue laws ever since. Kansans were gifted with beer with an alcohol content of less than 3.2 percent in 1937, four years after the 21st Amendment repealed federal Prohibition. Kansas still hasn't ratified that amendment, but the state ban was lifted in 1948. Alcoholic Beverage Control, a division of the state's Department of Revenue, was created that same year to license, regulate and tax liquor sales.