Betting on a Dark Horse
This local, sibling-owned KC distillery produces quality small-batch bourbon, whiskey and rye with Missouri corn and Kansas wheat.
For years, the world of spirits production was dominated by large names and high-volume producers. When it came to whiskey in America, you didn’t have to go far beyond the names Jack and Jim. There were a few specialty brands for bourbon lovers, small-batch whiskeys with more depth and complexity for top cocktails and “sipping whiskey.” What there wasn’t was a collection of small locally oriented distilleries to compete with the bigger names.
That changed in a major way over the past decade, and Lenexa, Kansas, has its own proud entry into the category with Dark Horse Distillery. Founded in 2010, by brothers Damian, Eric and Patrick Garcia and their sister Mary Gallagher, the name itself embodies how they saw themselves upon launching.
“We knew we were getting into a pretty crowded field, and it was pretty overwhelming,” says Damian Garcia, the director of sales and marketing. “At that point in time, there weren't very many small-batch craft spirit selections in the Kansas City market, so we would be sitting on shelves with all of the big distilleries that have been around forever with massive marketing budgets. With all of this and being new to the spirits business, the term "dark horse" really rang true at that point in time….we were the long shot!”
The Garcias shared a love for American and Scotch whiskies, and a tour of an out-of-state craft distillery planted the seed in their minds. They reached out to the Kentucky-based Vendome Copper & Brass Works and purchased a 500-gallon copper still, which they affectionately nicknamed “Chester Copperpot” (fans of the movie The Goonies will get the reference).
Our small-batch process starts off with around 1,000 pounds worth of grain, which will be made into 500 gallons of mash,” Damian says. “After distilling the mash, we get about 50 gallons of 145- to 150- proof spirit.”
They devised the recipes for their first two spirits, the Reunion Rye Whiskey (described as having a smooth, creamy character with a spicy finish) and the Reserve Bourbon Whiskey (with notes of vanilla, maple, caramel and smoke), in July 2011. The new spirits went into barrel, and two more products followed in 2012, the Long Shot White Whiskey and Rider Vodka. By 2013, the first oak-aged spirits were deemed ready for release.
“Those first batches of bourbon and rye were aged for around 20 months in smaller barrels for more exposure to the oak,” says Garcia “Our more recent batches are now at the 22- to 24-month mark, and we'll be at the over-two-year mark later this year.”
No longer the proverbial dark horse, the company’s artisanal sips in handmade, labeled and numbered bottles have accrued a slew of awards from American Craft Distillers Association, Whisky Magazine’s World Whiskies Awards, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, and various tasting competitions such as the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition. And their pours can be found at over 200 quality bars and restaurants in the KC metro area.
Even though Dark Horse has opened six markets, there’s a very local focus. The Garcias source as much of their grain as possible from Kansas and Missouri.
“Our corn comes from Missouri, and our wheat comes from Kansas,” says Garcia. “The rye comes from the north where the climate and regions are better suited for growing rye. Also, most of the equipment we work on, with the exception of our still and spirits receiver, were made locally. The wood used in our whiskey barrels is American oak from Missouri.”
The distillery also doubles as an event space. Think 20-foot ceilings and handsome furnishings such as leather Chesterfield sofas and wrought iron chandeliers. There are three rooms that can accommodate wedding parties, sit-down dinners and corporate gatherings.
As for sibling rivalries, think again. This tightly knit team of four has made a transition from family members to business partners that is as smooth as the bourbons and whiskeys that they purvey. “When we were starting, it was a bit of a challenge getting to know each other on a business level, rather than the interactions we have as just being a family,” says Garcia. As our business has matured (going into our fifth year) we've really learned how to reach a common ground on all matters. Also, we get together quite often as a family outside of the business and as much as we try and not discuss the distillery, it never fails that it dominates the conversation pretty much all the time.”
Look for more Dark Horse products coming soon. There’s already a once-a-year release of barrel-strength (higher proof) rye and bourbon, and though the Garcias didn’t want to say too much too soon, they are experimenting with some new recipes for the near future.
For more information on where to find Dark Horse and upcoming distillery tour dates, visit dhdistillery.com.
Dark Horse Distillery Drinks
The Dark Horse Distillery website has a large collection of drink recipes, many of which I sampled in the name of “research.” Here are select favorites:
A Hard Buck
1 ounce DHD Reserve Bourbon
1 ounce apple brandy
¾ ounce lemon juice
splash of ginger beer
lemon peel twist for garnish
Fill an Old-Fashioned glass with ice and combine first three ingredients. Top with ginger beer, stir to mix, and garnish with lemon.
1 ½ ounces DHD Reunion Rye
¾ ounce lemon juice
¾ ounce simple syrup
½ ounce grenadine
cherry for garnish
Fill an Old-Fashioned glass and cocktail shaker with ice. Combine first four ingredients in shaker, shake well, and strain into glass. Garnish with cherry.
Winter in Manhattan
2 ounces Long Shot White Whiskey
½ ounce red vermouth
½ ounce white vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
cherry for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Combine first four ingredients, and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with cherry.