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Q & A With Bill Owens: The American Distilling Institute Founder's Cross-Country Road Trip, Industry Trends + His Favorite Spirit Stops

Bill Owens' view on the open road
Bill Owens' view on the open road

If you want to know what's really going on in the craft distilling industry, 74-year-old Bill Owens, president of the Hayward-based American Distilling Institute, is your (always chatty) man.

He also happens to be quite an accomplished photojournalist, a skill that he says doesn't always work in his favor in today's hyper-paranoid world. "As a man in my 70s, I can't go to Disneyland to take photographs anymore; everyone is suspicious of me," he says. These days, Owens documents copper pot stills on the distillery-driven road trips he takes every few years.

We chatted with Owens just before he left California on Aug. 15 for a cross-country tour for over two months. Get the interview after the jump, and then be sure to check out the American Distilling Institute's latest publication releases.

Squid Ink: A road trip?

Bill Owens: This will be my fourth trip across the country. Believe it or not, Elton John's agent bought $30,000 worth of [my photography] prints out of the blue. So basically, I'm going on Elton John's dime.

SI: That's hilarious. And a long time on the road.

BO: I'm used to it by now. I travel with my own pillow. You can travel with about $100 a day still, really, if you're careful. Motels run about $60, gas $30 or $40; all you need is a little food. Panera, Subway, eating at friends' houses. It doesn't have to be expensive.

SI: So why a road trip?

BO: Well, I drive across the country and back meeting distillers, to see what's going on with them and to promote them. I also visit some vendors who advertise with us, and one or two brewpubs. It's always very interesting.

Owens (center) in Arkansas with Jay Gibbs of Gibbs Brothers Cooperage, 2010 and Phil Brandon of Rocktown Distillery
Owens (center) in Arkansas with Jay Gibbs of Gibbs Brothers Cooperage, 2010 and Phil Brandon of Rocktown Distillery

SI: No doubt you meet some great folks.

BO: Oh yes. I really love the guys who have distilling in their DNA; they wake up one day and they want to do it. They have to do it. On the other end you have the businessmen, the pure distillery-owner types, and they're interesting, too. As the president of the [American Distilling] Institute, it's fun to see what people want right now in the industry.

SI: What are craft distillers interested in these days?

BO: Now they all want it to be legal to sell [their spirits] on site.

SI: In a tasting room, like a brewery or winery can do in many states.

 

BO: Yes, that's what everyone is fighting for now in different states. And getting rid of the three-tier [distribution] system. They got rid of the old three-tier system in the state of Washington, and you know what happened? Prices went up.

[

Squid Ink Note: In the three-tier distribution system, which many states have upheld since Prohibition, spirits companies can sell only to wholesalers, who then sell the product to retailers, who sell to consumers, rather than distillers selling directly to consumers.

]

SI: Good for Washington craft distillers. And now they can have tasting rooms legally, which is also great.

BO: I know one small distillery making $50,000 a month at the gift shop tasting room. And I know another that sells nothing but retail. But they're both doing great. That's the future, to be a local business, growing your own wealth, being as organic and natural as possible.

SI: Back to your multi-month road trip, because we're so fascinated by your cross-country dedication! Where are you headed this time?

BO: Oh, all over. I'm going up to Seattle, to Montana, and I want to go to Pierre, South Dakota -- there's a small distillery there I want to see. I'll dip across into Canada, head over to Boston. I'm flying from Boston to Copenhagen for a [gallery showing] of my Suburbia photographs. Then I'm going to Pennsylvania, another gallery. Then I'm putting my distilling hat back on, working my way down the eastern seaboard to North Carolina, Florida and New Orleans. I can tell you, by the time I get to Texas, I am antsy to get home.

SI: Yeah, we bet. Any favorites?

BO: Oh, there are so many. Catdaddy [spiced moonshine from North Carolina]. Skip Rock, a distillery outside Seattle. As far as states, Missouri is one of my favorites. I want to go photograph some barrels being made there, go see the loggers. I'm very interested in cooperage [barrel making], it's so interesting.

SI: Well, have fun. And keep us posted on your favorite new distilleries.

BO: Oh yes, when you're on the road today, you're never unwired.


Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Find more from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com

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