You stroll past towering tanks outside on your way into Iron Smoke Distillery's 10,000-square-foot digs in Fairport and you're immediately assailed by the smell of corn mash and the sounds associated with the fermentation process as the door opens. The shop dog, Otto, gives you the lazy once over. Forklifts whizz by; men in big rubber boots man the still; and barrels of whiskey line the walls like an Irish man's wet dream. The whole place hums like the North Pole during the November toy crunch.
In walks Tommy Brunett, rock 'n' roller and whiskey man. Now, one might think having a rocker run a distillery is like letting the monkeys run the zoo, but Brunett is a study in lanky cool and balance as he juggles music and whiskey. And to better understand the man, you need to understand what he does and who he is: Brunett, along with several partners, is Iron Smoke Whiskey, and he, along with assorted musicians, is the Tommy Brunett Band.
Brunett's rock 'n' roll is a low-down, badass blast of American roots and fun. It's full of a gunslinger's cocksure swagger, attitude, and innovation — funny, the same can be said for his Iron Smoke Whiskey.
Iron Smoke is a whiskey with a bourbon four grain mash bill. It's whiskey alright, with smoky overtones, but just ask Brunett: it ain't bourbon.
"We don't call it bourbon," he says. "We're purists and don't want to call it a bourbon unless it's aged at least two years. It just wouldn't feel right."
Iron Smoke does have a bourbon on deck due to launch sometime in 2017 as well as a barbeque sauce and a whiskey barrel-aged beer duet with the folks over at Genesee Brewery.
And just as rock 'n' roll has time honored traditions along with a set of rules to be broken, so does whiskey. It all starts with an impulse, an idea, or in this case, three chords and the proof.
"I've been a fan of whiskey all my life," Brunett says. "I drank a lot of it. Then about five years ago, I got this idea for a smoked whiskey." To Brunett, this made perfect sense — a serendipitous collision.
"I was like, 'Why hasn't anybody tried this?'" he says. "'It's a great idea.' So we started experimenting in the back yard with the smoker. Then we moved on to a still. It was trial and error for about a year and a half with small barrels. We tried nine recipes to get the recipe we've got now aging in virgin white oak barrels."
Brunett and his partners flew under the radar "Breaking Bad" style before leasing space in Seneca Falls, then ultimately moving to the former American Can plant in Fairport where we find them today.
"It's all legal now,'" he says. "And now bourbon is exploding. We just got into it to do it. We didn't know market trends or anything."
But a rock 'n' roller making smoked whiskey?
"Some people laughed in the beginning," Brunett says. But he knew he was onto something.
"When it first came out," he says. "I asked our distributor, 'What if we sell out?' And he said, 'I've been in this business 30 years. You'll never sell out. Get that out of your mind.' Two weeks later, he was like, 'I don't know what's happening.'"
The first batch — 166 cases — debuted regionally in November 2013 and sold out rapidamente. Subsequent batches two, three, and four sold out as well. Stores couldn't keep Iron Smoke Whiskey on their shelves. The brand's skeletal mascot, Skully, was everywhere, grinning his approval. The demand got increasingly torqued, and the Iron Smoke bizz-buzz started bizz-buzzing. The blogosphere blew up and cats like Billy Gibbons gave it the thumbs up, "Adding juice to the juice" according to Brunett.
So to satisfy demand, Iron Smoke put out Rattlesnake Rosie's Apple Pie Whiskey. As Brunett explains, it's more of a moonshine type product that doesn't require aging.
"That's because it's corn whiskey mixed with cider," he says. "Our distiller had an awesome recipe and everybody fell in love with it." But don't let the apple pie flavor or Rosie's pretty countenance on the bottle deceive you. As the label promises, it's delicious and sinful.
"Well, it's 70 proof," Brunett says. "It'll roll your socks up and down. It tastes just like apple pie. That's the dangerous part."
Meanwhile back in the jungle ... There's still rock 'n' roll to render as well. Brunett's been hard at work penning tunes for the follow up to his excellent twang-a-fied release, "Hell or High Water," a beautifully well-worn slice of American music.
He had tried for years to get this sound out of his head and onto the stage. But finding musicians who got it, or at least tried to get it, proved tough. Brunett forged ahead, filling in the gaps and shouldering the brunt of the work this hybrid created. He endured. The result is a denim and dirt sound that's part Johnny Cash resolve and stoicism mixed with a dash of contemporary flash and kerrang.
"It's just American rock 'n' roll with old school country," he says. "I sing because I got sick of singers — and I can't even sing that great. I went and did it my way. I guess I've got character. I don't know how big an audience I'll ever have. I love the rush, I love playing, I love the band; it sounds great. I don't want to ever lose that. So I'll keep on making records, not paying attention to trends. Same with the whiskey: I didn't go after it because it was a trend."
At 50 years old, Brunett is aware rock 'n' roll can be a young man's game. "With rock 'n' roll, I'm not a spring chicken," he says. "The more it tries to throw me off, the tighter I hold on."
In a way, Brunett has got it made in the shade. But there are responsibilities; people are counting on him.
"We made this out of a love and passion for artisan stuff," he says. "Supporting local agriculture, our farmers are our friends. All of our grains come from family owned farms in the Finger Lakes Region," he says. "In fact we give our stripped mash grains back to the farmers to feed their livestock.
"People say, 'You make whiskey and you make music; that's the Holy Grail.' But I get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. When I'm not at the distillery I'm at the distillery in my head."
His time is split 60/60 between the two endeavors.
"It's probably more than that," Brunett says. "I've got a great opportunity and a lot of people depending on me to do the right thing."
So choose one ..."I can't," he says, laughing at the suggestion.
He's also quick to dismiss the Holy Grail comparison, opting for a more Blessed Trinity type of thing — whiskey, band, family — with his wife and two boys coming out on top of it all.
"The biggest thing I do is keep cereal in the bowls," he says.
And whiskey in the glasses, plus rock 'n' roll in the guts.
Iron Smoke is now being distributed in Texas. Next stop: New York City this fall. Brunett is almost done writing material for the new record and plans on hitting the studio to lay it down in the next few months. He hopes to have it hit store shelves by Christmas.
Whiskey and rock 'n' roll. The attitude they espouse and their superlatives are universally interchangeable; the whiskey mellow and strong, the music intoxicating. Neither is for lightweights. Both offer a little intimidation. Brunett elucidates.
"They're both so similar, it's crazy," he says "It's a rock 'n' roll brand. We're not selling Bibles. We're selling whiskey, along with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. You've got to be a little bit dangerous or no one cares."