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"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."