Purveyors of moonshine are stereotypically portrayed as either hillbillies or mobsters, but Arturo Gomez and his partners at Chicago-based Rockit Ranch Productions have made the practice of making and selling white whisky the province of high-end restaurateurs this year.
With the opening this July of Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, a concept that offers American BBQ complemented by Asian influences and an extensive cocktail list, Rockit Ranch finished a three-year development process. That process began with Gomez exploring Southern barbecue culture and becoming immersed in the finer points of modern moonshine production. He soon began developing a proprietary recipe with Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Mich., which became Dragon Ranch’s signature White Dragon moonshine.
“I don’t get involved with any project unless I’m over-the-top in love with it,” the Rockit Ranch president said while seated at Dragon Ranch’s bar one recent afternoon. “As a concept, people have embraced this culinary mash-up of true American barbecue with some Asian influence. So I think the future’s bright.”
But Dragon Ranch’s moonshine and the cocktail and barbecue menus that complement it are more than a passion project for Gomez. The upscale restaurant, with an average check of about $35 at dinner and $20 at lunch, is intended to be a growth vehicle for Rockit Ranch down the line, and in the near term the white whisky product yields a favorable return on investment.
Gomez spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the advantages to being one of few restaurateurs to develop a proprietary spirit.
I’ve heard of brewpub restaurants doing their own craft beers, but I would imagine getting proprietary liquor distilled would be harder to do and a trickier return on investment to achieve.
I think the reason why nobody else was doing it is because while there are plenty of distilleries, most of them are too big. Those distilleries will not lessen their brand. But Journeyman was in that right stage, where they were willing to put a lot of eggs in our basket, so to speak, to help build their brand. They knew if we were successful in building a following for Dragon Ranch whisky…it would lead to everybody asking us where we were getting it produced.
They have a wonderful line of products, and now they’re busier than they’ve ever been handling just our volume. We’re certainly their biggest white-whisky account that they have. We’re doing a substantial amount of product because most of our signature drinks have our proprietary blend in it. In order to make it cost-effective, there was a minimal investment on our end; there were some legal considerations involved to make sure we could bring the product to market and some very small production costs.
What do we get out of it? We’re able to secure really aggressive pricing from them. That gives us a really great opportunity to increase or establish that ROI. On their end, it becomes a volume game. They’ll sell at least 300 cases of our product this year.
What came first when you were developing Dragon Ranch: the barbecue restaurant concept or the moonshine?
There was some overlap certainly, but I think barbecue came first. When we started looking into a barbecue concept, the whole whisky category was there at the same time. We started looking at the roots of barbecue culture and its history in the South, and we started seeing a lot about “white lightning,” “mountain dew” and “hooch.”
Reviewers and other people were indicating that moonshine was a quick fad and that it would be gone, but now Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam are coming out with new white whiskies, and they’re aware of the opportunity. It broadens awareness, and they’re going to spend millions of dollars in magazine ads and on-premise marketing, and the curiosity for this is going to increase.
People are going to come here curious to try it, and they’re going to find out that it’s another white spirit with a unique flavor profile, with similar characteristics in terms of mixing as gin or vodka. It allows mixologists to do quite a bit more than aged whisky, which has a definitive taste that’s more restrictive.
So how does having this white whisky affect your bar program and menu development? What can you do with it?
White whisky can be made from any type of grain, and each has a distinct flavor profile. We decided to make our White Dragon with wheat, because it softens the palate and almost has a floral note to it. We’re sticking just to the wheat because I think it’s amazing and superior to anything we have on the back bar.
If you decide to open more Dragon Ranch locations can you also scale the white whisky program?
We built this concept with the intention of being scalable. It’s a small footprint, and we’re still growing into our skin and finding out what the business can do, but long-term, I think that’s a viable option. Before we got in bed with Journeyman, the question was, “What happens if I need 10,000 cases?” So they have the ability to do it. Certain things would need to happen, but they have the ability to build it out.
Have there been any big surprises yet, working with a model built around an untested kind of spirit?
I think we knew that people would love the spirit, but they’ve really embraced it to the point where our mixed cocktails by far outsell anything else.