Spirits of Cape Ann

Gloucester distillery brings craft approach to alcoholic beverages

Still operator Jim Cook at Ryan & Wood distillery monitors the progress of one of the company’s products, believed to be the first produced in Gloucester since Prohibition. Still operator Jim Cook at Ryan & Wood distillery monitors the progress of one of the company’s products, believed to be the first produced in Gloucester since Prohibition. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / July 2, 2009
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GLOUCESTER - Beauport, Knockabout, Folly Cove. The names have historic meaning on Cape Ann.

Beauport - “good harbor’’ in French - was an early, poetic name for Gloucester. A knockabout was a type of fishing boat without a bowsprit, designed in Essex. Folly Cove is an inlet on the Rockport shore that lends itself to navigational errors and, by some accounts, rum-running during Prohibition.

But the names are about to get new meanings. As in, “I’d like a Beauport Martini, please.’’ “Pour me a Knockabout and tonic.’’ “Can you make a Folly Cove and cranberry?’’

In a bland industrial park just off a Route 128 rotary, Bob Ryan and his nephew Dave Wood are running what they believe is the first still in Gloucester - the first legal one, anyway - since the start of Prohibition in 1919. Their hand-crafted, premium-priced Beauport Vodka is hitting the shelves of a few Cape Ann package stores and bars. Knockabout Gin and Folly Cove Rum will follow in coming weeks, and wider distribution is planned.

“You don’t want to ramp up and burst on the scene too large and have a pipeline you can’t fill,’’ Ryan said. “You want to take advantage of being a bit exclusive, something that people want to have, maybe the rare baseball card of the industry type of attitude, and be sure that you put out what you want to put out.’’

From the front, Ryan & Wood Inc. Distilleries headquarters looks like a regular strip-mall office. But the building drops down a slope at its rear, creating a warehouse-like space three stories high. It’s there that the two men and still operator Jim Cook work amid pallets of grain and other raw materials, tanks of vodka and barrels of rum and whiskey spirits stacked to the ceiling.

The centerpiece of their efforts is the 152-gallon alembic pot still, a wonderful contraption out of Jules Verne or “Willy Wonka,’’ with a giant hammered-brass pot and “helmet’’ beside two 17-foot towers dotted with portholes, all connected with pipes and tubes. Made in Germany and heated by steam, the still was a $90,000 investment.

Inside it, American barley, wheat, and rye are the raw materials for a carefully monitored double distillation that delivers an eye-watering 95-percent-alcohol spirit that will then be diluted with local spring water down to 80-proof (40 percent alcohol) vodka. The gin is made much like the vodka, but with the addition of botanicals, including dried citrus peel that gives it a bright, summery taste. There’s also an all-rye whiskey in the works. The rum starts as molasses instead of grain.

“We get a lot of people come in and ask if there’s anything local. I think the Gloucester people will try it, and he has a good product,’’ said Louis Linquata, who owns Seabreeze Liquors and Railroad Avenue Liquors in Gloucester, where he’ll stock Ryan & Wood products.

It’s an interesting project for the 56-year-old Ryan, who worked as a commercial banker in town, and the 37-year-old Wood, a real estate lawyer in Beverly.

“I have been accused of this being my red convertible at age 50,’’ Ryan said, his smile showing no signs of midlife crisis. “It’s an adventure.’’

For Ryan and Wood it’s also about crafting a product they are proud of and staying connected to their roots. Before selling their first bottle, Ryan was honored earlier this month as the 2009 small-business person of the year in Manchester by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

“I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else,’’ said Wood. “He wants to make his mark on history with this, and I think he will. To be part of that is a heck of a lot more gratifying than making junior partner at Hale & Dorr, if that’s the analog to the distilling business. It’s the reason for getting out of bed. Otherwise, looking at a future of closing loans, it’d just be a little more bleak, I guess.’’