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Alcohol & Spirits

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

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Tue, Aug 28, 2012 at 12:30 PM
click to enlarge Bill Owens' view on the open road - BILL OWENS

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.

click to enlarge Owens (center) in Arkansas with Jay Gibbs of Gibbs Brothers Cooperage, 2010 and Phil Brandon of Rocktown Distillery - 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.

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