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.
"I wouldn't consider Kansas a dry state," says Doug Jorgensen, director of the ABC. "People might consider Kansas to be one of the most regulated states, but I don't have a problem with that."
The legislative landscape, though, may be changing. Sixteen liquor-related bills are before the Kansas Legislature, and include allowing a new class of license to bring distilleries in line with farm wineries and brewpubs; a new venue license that would change regulations for stadiums and facilities like the Kansas Speedway; and the legalization of full-strength-beer and liquor sales at convenience and grocery stores. In an effort to speed up that change, Dark Horse Distillery has hired lobbyist Phillip Bradley to push Senate Bill 358, which would make it legal to serve free samples in Kansas microdistilleries.
The rising profile of spirits reminds some of the push that led to brewpubs being legalized in 1987. At the front of that charge was Chuck Magerl, the founder of Free State Brewing Co., which opened in Lawrence two years later.
"Distilleries may have an easier time now than 25 years ago, when I was trying to change the state laws," Magerl says. "And I feel like there is a greater appreciation here and throughout the Midwest for the diversity of flavors and interesting ideas."
Today, Kansas has 20 microbrewery license holders and 44 farm-winery license holders. It has taken 60 years, but Kansas finally may be ready to shed its dry-state reputation.
The idea had haunted him for months before the word came to him in January 2008: flavorita.
"We were in our neighborhood, watching kids with Fla-Vor-Ice pops outside, and one of the moms told me she wished we had something like that for us that doesn't taste like shit," Dickson says.
Soon after he scrawled flavorita in dry-erase marker on his bathroom mirror, he hired a research assistant to determine what it would take to launch a liquor company. By mid-April, he had concocted a prototype: a frozen margarita in a Go-Gurt yogurt tube, pinched off with a paper clip.
Dickson is a serial entrepreneur. Sharkbite is, by his count, the fourth business he has created. He started a Leawood landscaping business while he was in high school. After selling Dickson Lawn Service in 1993 and graduating from Mid-America Nazarene College, with a degree in management and human resources, he found himself working in what he calls a "cement coffin," a cubicle where he sold software by phone. Next, he helped launch a company that made perforated card inserts for magazines. It was lucrative but unfulfilling.
What he loved was the tinkering he did during off hours, projects like the homemade-margarita machine that brought together a cooler and a garbage disposal to chew up a 25-pound bag of ice in minutes.
"I just thought there was an easier way to make margaritas. This was before QVC," Dickson says.
The mechanically inclined Dickson eventually found a job that suited him. Dickson Plumbing celebrates its 14th anniversary this June, about a month after Brad and his wife, Tawnia, throw their 21st Cinco de Mayo party. It was the plumbing business that kept Shark Attack afloat in the early days. His lead plumber, Josiah Linkous, doubled as his chief Shark Attack employee, helping create a more advanced prototype by working a machine designed for filling spaghetti-sauce containers. In February 2009, Dickson signed a three-year lease on a 3,000-square-foot commercial space in Olathe with dreams of having the frozen pops on store shelves by the next year.
"It was all on faith," Dickson says.
The first test of that faith came when federal regulators required him to purchase his tequila directly from the manufacturer. He estimates that he contacted 700 distilleries in Mexico. A single broker replied. So Dickson did what he does best: He got on a plane and he sold himself.
"I thought: This guy could meet me at the airport, hit me on the head with a hammer and rob me blind," Dickson says. "He showed up in an old, beat-up pickup truck. I only knew two Spanish words — cerveza and baño — but fortunately, he spoke English."
Dickson and his translator convinced the plant's owner to close the deal. In March 2009, 3,000 bottles arrived from Mexico.
Production was supposed to start a month later. But then Dickson received a letter from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office telling him that his trademark application for Sharkbite Cocktails had been denied. Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. already owned a trademark for Sharkbite Rum, granted in 1989.
"I remember I was sitting in the parking lot and I couldn't breathe. I was completely numb," Dickson says. "I had $25,000 in this company and I felt like my whole life had been sucked out of me. But I have this mantra: Keep moving forward."
By April 2009, the bank balance was $7.62. Determined to get his business started, Dickson secured his first investor (private investors now own 40 percent of the company), and the $10,000 infusion kept the lights on as he applied for a new trademark under the name Shark Attack. Dickson says the name refers to the human threat to sharks, not the stuff of scary movies. Since a youth spent watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, he has wanted to swim with — and touch — a great white shark.
In January 2010, his trademark was approved. In April of that year, Worldwide Wine and Spirits, in Lenexa, agreed to begin distributing his products, buying his entire inventory of 30,000 tubes. They had taken three months to make, with each tube hand-filled and sealed. The plumber was officially in the liquor business.
As Dickson tried to keep up with demand, another distillery was just breaking ground, 10 miles north on Interstate 35. Outside a red-brick building, only a few potted topiaries hint that the business within is unlike the rest of this commercial complex's tenants. Inside, the aroma of fresh-baked bread — courtesy of the boiling grain a few hundred feet away — fills the tiled lobby.
Dark Horse Distillery is the brainchild of four siblings: Damian, Patrick, Eric and Mary Garcia. On a January afternoon, they share a sofa facing a wall of windows looking out on the 500-gallon copper still (from Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky) and the stainless-steel fermentation tanks that are the heart of the newest distillery in Kansas. Like Dickson and Dark Horse CEO Kris Hennessy (who has long sold veterinary vaccines), they've been lured off surer career tracks by the prospect of making their own spirits.
"The Kansas City market was one that hasn't been tapped," Eric Garcia says. "We wanted to drink something that was made here. We've seen other success stories in Kansas City, and we aspire to bring something here that hasn't been done yet."
Patrick, 34, was the first to walk away from his job. He was working as an investment banker for Charles Schwab. He oversaw the fitting of this 6,500-square-foot warehouse space last winter and began learning the craft alongside Travis Vander Vegte, the company's other distiller who has been mashing and cooking since last July.
"Most of the time, Travis handles the milling, and I handle the distillation, but we trade those duties frequently," Patrick says. "It's a big change from sitting behind a desk to controlling this thing," he adds, giving the still a gentle pat.
Notes for each batch go on dry-erase boards clipped to the fermentation tanks. Dark Horse is producing 40-50 gallons a day, and Garcia spends seven to eight hours working next to the still — exactly what the American Distilling Institute's Owens prescribes.
"There's no graduate school for distilling, but it's not rocket science," Owens says. "It just takes practice. We've been distilling for 6,000 years."
Damian, 35, came on next, as the head of sales and marketing. He left a sales job at Rheuark FSI, where he had worked with clients in the food and beverage industry for 13 years.
"Dark Horse symbolized us as a group," Damian says. "We are starting out at the back of the pack. We're the underdogs. But we're ready to run."
Eric, 30, left Chicago this past December, after resigning from the state prosecutor's office. He's the only one of the family who admits that he has watched Discovery Channel's Moonshiners as part of his distillery education. And Mary, 23, having recently graduated from the University of Missouri with an English degree, came on this winter to oversee special events and the company's social-media strategy.
The family has always been close. They grew up in south Kansas City. Their father worked for IBM, and their mother was a bank teller. Family dinners are on Wednesday nights, and their mother watches her grandchildren while the siblings hash out issues with the distillery. The company received its manufacturing license last April, and its first products are due out this spring: Long Shot White Whiskey and Rider Vodka. On the calendar for late summer: rye whiskey and bourbon aged in charred American oak barrels.
"This is a new way of doing things," Eric says. "It's about what we can do differently."
"There's touches of the traditional, with the copper still from Kentucky, but we're aiming for the modern feel of the Northwest," Damian adds.
Three event spaces at the Dark Horse Distillery flow in an L-shape around the distilling room, and there's a showpiece kitchen with enough stainless steel and granite to star on an HGTV remodeling show. Pendant lights and wrought-iron lanterns hang over supple leather couches and dark-wood tables. The floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the facility mean that the distillery's operations are always transparent. On a Tuesday in January, rye is being brewed in the still. The adjacent mash cooker is busy agitating grains — it sounds like a large room fan. The spent grains go to a local farmer as cattle feed. The racks in the bottling room next door are empty, awaiting the pallets and labels once Dark Horse moves into production.
"I just picture going to a bar on a weekend and there's all those liquors on the shelf. Someday, our liquor is going to be behind that bar," Patrick says. "Until that day happens, I will still feel like it's kind of a dream."
It's the excitement of those early days that Dickson sometimes misses, the 20-hour shifts, the quirks of small business, telling callers to hold on while the train passed by right outside.
"The alcohol business needed another pre-mixed margarita like a hole in the head," Dickson says. "The difference was the packaging and the fact that we make a real margarita."
Dickson's product has just five ingredients: lime juice, cane sugar, filtered water, tequila and orange liqueur (which is now contract-distilled by the neighboring Good Spirits Distilling). The result is a taste that evokes frosty glasses rather than pre-mixed tubs gathering dust in a forgotten aisle of the liquor store.
By October 2010, Dickson's operation needed more room. He settled on the 10,000-square-foot space in Olathe that now houses the manufacturing line, storage room, test kitchen and offices. The company took off in 2011, with sales growing sevenfold, in part because of a contract with Sam's Club and Wal-Mart. Dickson even entertained a serious buyout offer from what he calls "a major, major corporation."
"If we don't get another offer and I can come to work in shorts and flip-flops for the next 20 years, that's fine with me," Dickson says. "But if somebody bought me out, I'd get a sailboat, and you'd find me all over the world diving."
He pauses for a second.
"Then I'd start another company that helps seed small businesses."
By the end of last year, Shark Attack margaritas were in 15 states, a number that Dickson expects to nearly double in 2012. And next month, Dickson launches his second frozen product: a hard lemonade — a clear hard lemonade.
"Why do I need to add yellow color if it's not yellow?" Dickson says. Two additional flavors are planned for this summer.
While Dickson is Kansas' de facto liquor ambassador to other states, Dark Horse Distillery hopes to attract tourists to the Midwest. Magerl calls that a winning strategy. He believes that the expansion of microdistilleries, like microbreweries, is more about increasing awareness than overcoming opposition.
"People thought you could have a large distillation operation or a still in the backwoods — nobody thought there was anything between," he says. "The concept that there's a limited urban-hipster demographic that is going to appreciate quality and flavor is rapidly fading as a stereotype. The idea of being stuck in the hinterlands and not having choices is no longer really applicable."
A plumber who now runs a frozen-margarita business, the siblings who left behind successful careers to start a distillery from scratch — Shark Attack and Dark Horse are rewriting their state's liquor lore, long after Carry Nation came to save Kansans from themselves. And they're leading the way for other microdistilleries. Regardless of what happens during the latest legislative session in Topeka, Kansas is only going to get wetter.