S.D. Strong Distilling set its roots underground in Parkville
Steve Strong is quick to point out the benefits of distilling in a cave. For instance, the cool, consistent cave environment is perfect for fermentation — a process that can be spoiled by temperature swings.
And unlike most distillers, Strong doesn’t have to rotate his barrels of rye whiskey and bourbon. The cave naturally keeps them all the same temperature.
But back in 2012 as Strong was establishing his new business, he wasn’t sold on the idea of setting roots beneath the surface.
“At first I was like: ‘I don’t want to be in a cave. No one’s going to find us,’” he said.
But eventually the upsides of going underground won him over.
Today S.D. Strong Distilling is a growing business based in a former limestone mine in Parkville. The company is located 65 feet underground. Strong expects to sell up to 1,300 cases of spirits this year, up from 400 cases the year the company opened.
The unusual location has turned into an important part of how Steve and his wife, Lisa, who co-owns the business, have shaped their company’s image.
“We knew we were going to have a bootlegger sort of vibe, and what’s more bootlegger than being in a cave?” Strong said.
After launching the business by selling bottles of small-batch vodka, the company’s second product was Pillar 136 Gin, named for the limestone pillar supporting the rock roof over the distillery.
The company has trademarked the term “Made in a Cave” and uses it to help differentiate itself from the growing number of small distilleries nationwide.
In 2010 there were 204 small distilleries operating in the United States. Now there are 1,315, according to an October 2016 report by the American Craft Spirits Association. The latest annual sales numbers show that the craft distilling industry is selling 4.9 million cases of spirits per year, generating $2.4 billion in revenue. More than 12,000 Americans now work in distilling.
This growing consumer demand for craft spirits has helped boost S.D. Strong Distilling as well. The company’s products are distributed by Major Brands throughout Missouri. They are also available in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and southern Illinois. They’ll soon be in Iowa.
S.D. Strong Distilling products can also be found at all 54th Street Grill & Bar locations. Strong said the Missouri-based restaurant chain has been a big supporter.
“They have endorsed our brand and what we are doing,” he said. “They’ve prominently featured us.”
Looking forward, Strong is planning for more growth. He hopes to someday sell 10,000 cases of spirits annually. However, he doesn’t plan to get there overnight. He and his wife self-fund all their business investments, helping keep growth at a manageable pace.
Beyond the company’s unique marketing, its products are earning a reputation for quality.
The company’s Pillar 136 Gin took top honors at the 2015 and 2016 Washington Cup, a national competition that judges American-made liqueurs. The gin also won bronze at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Strong said that while the cave-based marketing has helped his company stand out and get people to try his products, it’s the quality of the spirits that matters most in the long run.
“Ultimately, what’s in the bottle has to be great,” he said. “I put my name on the bottle. If it’s not great, I don’t want it to go in the bottle.”