Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Distillery

Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Distillery

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On December 16, 2019
  • Comments

Colorado-native Chris Barlow moved to Utah in 1994 to pursue his career in the creative world. With more than 30 years of commercial photography experience, Chris was the Imaging Department Manager at Backcountry and owned his own company, too. He began climbing at Rockreation in 1999 and now climbs with his family at The Front.

Now, along with fellow creatives Matt Aller and Erik Ostling, Chris is co-owner of Beehive Distilling, a community business that has refined the art of producing delicious spirits.

Beehive is also a proud sponsor of many events at The Front, including Deadpoint. Recently, we caught up with Chris to talk about his photography, climbing, Beehive’s new space on 2245 S W Temple and what it’s like distilling gin in a state known for its strict alcohol laws and regulations.

The Front Climbing Club: Did you or any of your business partners have prior professional business or distilling experience?

Chris Barlow: Well, we drank a lot! So, the next logical step was to make it ourselves. Matt has spent a ton of time in life making brands successful [in the marketing world], so he was excited to have one that was his.

Tell us about your design and photography experience.

I’ve been a photographer for 35 years. I have my own company and ran the studio at Backcountry for eight years.

At Beehive, we do all our own marketing and design in-house, from labels and packaging to the building itself. When we moved into this building, Matt and Erik built on the front end and designed all the colors and textures. We even just had someone who is redoing his house bring his designer and wife in because he liked our space so much.

How did you learn to distill? Was there ever a plan to open a full bar like you have today?

After Backcountry, Erik was at my house and we drank a few beers. We decided we should just open our own distillery. So, we called Matt, talked about it briefly, then just kind of did it.

I spent about six or eight months in 2013 getting a federal and state license, then took a few distilling classes.

What changed in the market that allowed you to start a distillery?

No one else was doing this at the time we started. Everyone looked at the licensing process as having too many roadblocks. There were and still are a lot of obstacles, but we just went for it.

What’s your opinion on the current trend of microbreweries and how this plays into the growth of micro distilleries?

If someone opened a local brewery 20 years ago, they might actually have a chance at going national. The trend was over around the same time Uintas and Squatters started.

Now, breweries open and you’re getting a Fisher model – they don’t distribute anything, or they have very limited distribution. Each brewery has a local following. There might be a few breweries in a region and each one has their own following. Because of this, they’re allowed to brew weird stuff, like a Coconut Stout, that wouldn’t sell anywhere else except their own location.

Essentially, there is market saturation with breweries. They’re more local-centric now than they were years ago. Distilleries are also starting to follow this trend: When they open, they don’t have much, if any, desire to go national.

Though, we are in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Texas. And we’re preparing for a canned cocktail launch in Idaho and Montana.

Why gin?

We didn’t even like gin that much when we started, but breweries are played out. We drank more whiskey than anything else. But producing whiskey is hard to break into. The distilling process is long.

We’re three creative people and we didn’t want to do vodka, because it’s super boring and tasteless. We could be creative with gin. It has its own flavor profile and is something we could be creative with. In Utah, no other local distilleries were doing gin, so we were the first to the market. We didn’t want to follow everyone else.

How can you be creative with gin unlike other liquors?

It’s a unique spirit because it’s considered gin as long as it contains juniper berries. You can have juniper berries and 4,000 other things, but it’s still gin. The flavor profile can be drastically different each time. So, you can have straight gin in one bottle or another that’s mostly something else – the scope for gin is huge.

Everything about making whiskey kind of funnels to a narrow profile. If it’s a bourbon, it has to be at least 51-percent corn. You can only be creative with 49-percent. It also has to sit in an oak barrel, which narrows the flavor profile even more.

Why small batch?

It’s expensive!

When we originally opened, we did not have any loans, but we had 1,250 square feet. To put it in perspective, this new building is 10,000 square feet.

We opened quickly because we were nimble and had three people. We didn’t need to go big right away because we would’ve needed a lot of money and investors. We had never done this before, so it was a big risk.

Why expand into vodka?

In Utah, nobody else is doing it as much. There are a lot of vodka distilleries that don’t make anything – they buy a giant tote then cut it with water and say it’s handmade. Half of vodka on the market never actually sees a still! It’s like buying a chocolate cake at Costco, cutting it into pieces, putting a dollop of whip cream on it and saying it’s handmade. That’s not fun.

But we are distilling it, which is fun!

Walk us through the distilling process.

We make our gin traditionally. We buy 190-proof ethanol then infuse flavors into the gin. We’re not fermenting or anything like that, which most places do not, either. We buy the blank canvas then paint on it.

For vodka, we’re using cane juice. We use organic cane that we ferment and make vodka out of. But vodka can be boring. Ours has flavor, taste and character.

Tell us about the bottle designs.

The flavors of our gin are that of the desert – rose, sage, juniper and coriander. So, we were thinking western with the taste, naming and design. Jack Rabbit speaks to the west and desert scruffy people. Heck, I’m scruffy most times!

People enjoy products with animals, so it made sense.

Why open the new space? How does this one differ from past locations?

There’s a lot more space here. Our old building didn’t have room to turn a forklift around in a circle. We could never do canned cocktails or vodka there. We literally did not have floor space to put our finished goods. It was maybe 20 feet by 51 feet.

This new location has a bar and can feature more local products. Plus, we can sell and drink here! People can come in and get familiar with us and our product, because there’s a big window which shows our distilling process. We’re not hiding behind a curtain.

Why this location?

We looked for eight months trying to find a location. This area was the first little warehouse zone in Salt Lake City that they put up in the 70s. It’s right on the TRAX line and in between The Front and its new gym on South Main.

How long have you been climbing for?

I didn’t start until I was 27 or 28 years old. My girlfriend at the time climbed and I was doing commercial photography, so I had a ton of free time. This was when Rockreation was the local gym. I would spend six hours a day climbing because I had nowhere else to be. I set routes in exchange for a membership for years.

I stopped climbing for a little bit because I got a corporate job and was busy. But, after my daughter was born, she started doing gymnastics and eventually wanted to try climbing, which was about four years ago. So we joined The Front just before the big addition was built and now my daughter is on the climbing team. 

Describe Beehive’s relationship with The Front.

We’ve been donating for four years now. We were working out and climbing there, and a friend introduced us to the events coordinator. We really like your Impact Coalition and the other social and environmental work you do. So donating is totally worth it for that reason alone.

Where is your favorite place to climb in the Wasatch?

Honestly, I’m a total gym rat. And partly because of time. If I go outside, I have to carry an 80-pound pack up a hill to do two routes during an entire day. Or, I can come to the gym and do a bunch.

But we climb in and around St. George more than anywhere else. My daughter wants to lead outside, so we took her to Shotgun Alley right outside of town and taught her. We went to the City of Rocks, too. And Maple is fun – it’s just like gym climbing.

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And next time you see Chris in the gym, be sure to thank him for his and Beehive’s many years of generosity and for helping to make The Front and its events the best they can be! Or swing through Beehive’s new location after a climbing sesh!

This interview has been edited for grammar and brevity.

If you or someone you know has an interesting story, reach out to tim.behuniak@thefrontclimbingclub.com to be featured in the blog and newsletter!