A spirited undertaking

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Martha's Vineyard Vodka is made from pure Tisbury spring water. —Leigh Ann Yuen

In June 2016, native islanders Nick Peters of Oak Bluffs and Ryan Shea of Vineyard Haven launched their new enterprise, Martha’s Vineyard Distillery Co., to positive reviews. After two years of toil and study, their home-distilled vodka appeared in Island liquor stores and restaurants. Now, midway through a winter of recipe adjustments and fine-tuning, they’re eager to get back at it.

Nick and Ryan, who have known each other since childhood, discovered several years ago that they shared the same dream, to create a successful distilling business on the Island. The two former schoolmates came to the idea separately. In Nick’s case, vacations in the Caribbean had triggered an interest in creating his own local spirits. Ryan had come to the idea through two of his passions, science and art. Distilling, he felt, was the merging of the two.

The next step was pure Island serendipity. When Ryan, an Island optometrist by trade, hired Nick, a contractor, to work on his house several years ago, Nick happened to mention his desire to create his own distillery. The two quickly joined forces.

“The Island is a place of connections,” Nick said. “People come together through work, sports, whatever it might be, and they help each other.”

During the next two years, they completed tedious state and federal license applications, pulled together startup funds, and found a piece of property in Vineyard Haven to lease. They also prepared. Ryan went to Washington and took a 10-week course in Distillery Craft. Nick experimented with the process. As a way to save money, Ryan and Nick helped adapt a barn in Vineyard Haven to create a distillery. Distilled spirits regulations require that applicants construct their distillery before they apply for permits.

It all came together in April 2016, when the permits arrived in the mail. Within six weeks they were up and running. By then, thanks to countless weekends and nights of labor, their complete operation was set up in a small building in Vineyard Haven.

The company’s official launch was in June. Their first offering was a vodka, available at a number of bars and restaurants. Thanks to the natural networking of the Island, other establishments were ready and willing to support the product. in time were represented at all of the liquor stores and 85 percent of the restaurants. The duo plans to eventually add a rum and a gin to the product line.

”The base of our product is Tisbury spring water, which has a very distinctive flavor,” explained Nick. “We buy local organic grains, and experiment with various local herbs and seasonings. These are small-batch spirits that require time and care.” Nick acknowledged that the duo have some secrets they do not share.

To further limit costs, the owners designed and handprinted their logo; they bottle and package the product themselves, and they make their own deliveries. Friends and family often pitch in.

As for marketing, much of it is in those very same word-of-mouth connections. Barkeeps and restaurant owners are among their local friends and “real job” clients. To further spread the word, and defray a portion of their initial investment, they rented space in downtown Oak Bluffs (now closed) and opened a seasonal retail store featuring apparel and mementos. (“Everything but the product,” Nick emphasized.)

By any measure, the 2016 debut of Martha’s Vineyard Distillery Co. was a success. Summer sales were strong; the feedback was encouraging. Yet Nick and Ryan are in no rush to expand the operation. Instead they are sticking with the original game plan. “We want to spread at a good, reasonable pace,” Nick said. “One example is that we do not hold tastings. They are an expense. Perhaps down the line we’ll do it. And we don’t do any shipping of our spirits. That’s not something we can handle right now. Again, maybe in the future.” (Their permit in Tisbury does not allow them to hold tastings and postal rules don’t allow them to ship spirits.)

The focus right now is on the product. Translation: researching and experimenting with locally-sourced ingredients, trial and error, adjustments. Science and art. Getting it right.

“We started something new and of high quality,” Nick continued. “We’re excited to be offering something to Martha’s Vineyard that is unique. Our main goal has not changed: to make one-of-a-kind spirits that satisfy our local customers and allow visitors to take a special piece of Martha’s Vineyard home with them.”

So far, so good for these two Island entrepreneurs.