From its Weston home, Holladay Distillery has grown a global presence
The longer bourbon ages, the better it becomes. The same can be said for the Holladay Distillery. Changes in temperature force the bourbon in and out of the white-oak barrel as it ages, creating its distinctive color and taste. Like a good bourbon, change has improved the Holladay Distillery as well. Changes in history, markets and tastes have added to the character of this Missouri company, the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi River, and the flavorful spirits it produces.
“Our company is ingrained in the history of this country. Few distilling companies have the rich legacy upon which this distillery has been built,” said Mick Harris, who is president of McCormick Distilling Co. and has worked for the company since 1991.
The first barrels of bourbon were produced by the Holladay Distillery in 1856, but the history of the company actually began half a century earlier when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first charted the discovery of rare, pure limestone springs in what would become Weston.
It took shrewd businessman Ben Holladay to discover a way to turn that special water into profits. Holladay was a serial entrepreneur. Prior to starting up the Holladay Distillery in partnership with his brother, Major David Holladay, he had established several successful business ventures in Weston, including a saloon and hotel.
America was expanding westward, and Holladay leveraged that movement through smart business investments. He eventually became owner of the Pony Express and the Overland Stage Company lines between Missouri and the West Coast, a business that earned him the nickname “The Stagecoach King.” At one point, Holladay was the largest private employer in America. Holladay had a monopoly on getting products to the West and whiskey was a product in high demand. You can bet he made sure it was his bourbon quenching the demand.
“Few people realize that the whiskey that was consumed in the West likely was Missouri bourbon. I guess you could say our bourbon helped tame the Wild West,” Harris said.
The distillery stayed in the Holladay family until the early 1900s. Over the next few decades it would change hands and names several times. In 1942, it became McCormick Distilling Company, a name that has graced the labels of the company’s family brands for almost 75 years. Under the McCormick name, the company originally operated as a regional distiller, producing bourbon, vodka and other products to serve a four-state region. That changed, however, in the 1970s when another famous American became part of the distillery’s history. His name was Elvis Presley.
“McCormick was a large manufacturer of whiskey decanters in the 60s, 70s and early 80s and held the exclusive rights to produce Elvis decanters,” Harris said. “With the popularity of the Elvis decanters came a nationwide network of distributors.”
The company used that network to market McCormick brands across the nation and another chapter of the company began to unfold. While expanding its market reach, the company also extended its product offerings over the next decade, adding value-priced brands to its mix. As demand grew for McCormick products, the company decided to move the production of its bourbon to a facility in Illinois in 1984. The bourbon distilling operation would stand idle for the next 30 years.
“The ownership at the time owned other distilleries and thought they could produce the bourbon more cost-effectively at a facility in another state. The Weston facility was used only for aging,” said Harris. “They came to find out, however, that they couldn’t produce bourbon as well as we could here.”
When McCormick Distilling was bought by Ed Pechar and Mike Griesser in 1993, the company began to produce premium offerings, such as Tequila Rose, a strawberry cream liqueur.
“Tequila Rose, created here in Weston, really was a revolutionary product at the time,” said Harris. “When it was introduced there were only one or two other cream liqueurs available on the market and those were Irish creams.”
Popularity of Tequila Rose helped the company break into the international market. Today you can find Tequila Rose in 68 countries.
“There is not a market that we have introduced to Tequila Rose that hasn’t welcomed it with open arms,” Harris said. “In fact, some of the highest per capita consumption is in Thailand, Kenya and the Philippines. It works in South America and Central America. We do very well in Europe. With that support, we have added international brokers so we can continue to develop our international presence.”
McCormick’s other premium brands include 360 Vodka, Triple Crown Whiskey, Platte Valley Moonshine and Hussong’s Tequila. The company also offers a tasty menu of other popular liquors.
The company has also grown through acquisitions, most recently purchasing a British company, Broker’s Gin.
“We bought the brand to develop it in the U.S. and at the same time help us grow our global presence,” Harris said.
Rounding out recent acquisitions is a tequila called Tarantula, developed in partnership with another distiller. Since development, McCormick has bought all the interest in that brand.
McCormick’s premium products marketing and acquisition strategy have led the way for heady growth for the company, tripling sales from $50 million in 1991 to more than $150 million in annual sales today. During that same time, employees have grown from 35 to 150.
But the owners were not content in stopping there. Pechar and Griesser had a dream to return bourbon production to the Weston facility. Following a 30-year hiatus and a $10 million renovation, that dream became a reality in April 2016 when the first run of bourbon – to be called Holladay 1856 – was barreled.
“The company has come full circle and we are excited to pay homage to our founder and build upon our legacy of fine bourbon,” said Harris. “It was a real leap. Every barrel, every drop of bourbon we make today has to sit in a warehouse for at least three years before we can bottle and market it. But at the end of three years, we think we will really have something special.”
Holladay’s 160-year old recipe, known in the industry as mashbill, is being used in the new production. As in Holladay’s time, all of the ingredients going into the bourbon will be locally sourced from within a 90-mile area. In addition to three-year old bourbon, Harris said that the Holladay Distillery will also continue aging some of its bourbon to eventually sell a gold-label, 10-year-old bourbon.
Increased popularity of late in craft liquors, and bourbon in particular, played a role in the company’s decision.
“The bourbon boom did have a part in our decision, but it’s a small part,” Harris said. “There were a lot of other factors that went into the move. For one thing, the heritage that we have in bourbon-making is unmatched. We also had all the buildings for production. But most of all, the decision was based on the fact that we can produce excellent products here.”
With the transition back to bourbon distilling, the site was reestablished as the Holladay Distillery, home of McCormick Distilling, Co.
Harris is looking forward to the years to come – for continued growth of the company and when the first run of Holladay 1856 can be poured and enjoyed.
“We absolutely see growth in the future. We have invested very heavily over the last five years and especially in the last year in acquiring more capacity and more brands. We just put our bourbon distillery back in action. Yes, we are poised for growth.”
With the relaunch of its bourbon production, the Holladay Distillery now offers tours so bourbon fans can get up close and personal with Holladay 1856 as it is being made. Visitors can see the original limestone, hand-dug well, filled with spring water used in the mashbill (recipe). In true, bourbon-making tradition, guests can take in the aroma of grains cooking and yeasty mash fermenting in open vats. As guests walk through the barrel warehouse that houses row upon row of aging barrels, they may even notice the slight, sweet smell of Angel’s share, the bourbon that evaporates through the wood of the barrel as it ages.
“Consumers today want to know, want to touch, want to feel where their products come from,” Harris said. “We’re proud to provide to give the people who support our brands that opportunity to visit.”
Even the non-bourbon drinker will enjoy touring the facility steeped with history, hidden among the rolling hills of Weston and listed among the National Register of Historic Places. Tours began April 1, 2016. Tours are offered seven days a week and cost $10 per person. You must be 21 or older to participate in the tasting portion of the tour.