Enthusiasm for brewing bubbles over into new Newport liquor distillery

by Paul Holmes (paulh@talkbusiness.net) 1,293 views 

Phillip Finch and Ross Jones met a decade ago while a local option, wet/dry election effort was under way in Independence County.

Soon, the two Batesville entrepreneurs began brewing beer together, in the process buying Arkansas-grown hops to impart the proper bitterness and flavor to their home-brew. With that craft mastered, the business partners subsequently became interested in the process of distilling whiskey.

“We were told that making good beer was the key to making good whiskey,” Jones said.

About two years ago, the old Ed Ward Distillery building in Newport became available, and “for some reason we bought it,” Jones laughed. That, however, was just the beginning of Jones’ and Finch’s journey to establish a distillery. They bought the distiller’s license and moved it, as well as began the process of getting all the approvals and permissions that were necessary before production could begin.

In early December 2018, the partners distilled their first barrel of whiskey and put it in the rack to age for the proper period until it is bottled and sold. Before that in 2017, Jones and Finch began searching for a new location for their nascent distillery. They started looking for a building that they could repurpose into a distillery.

When they looked at the former U.S. Post Office on Hazel Street in downtown Newport, Jones said “it struck us” as the most suitable space on which for them to put their stamp. They acquired the 1914 structure, and from there, Postmaster Spirits was born.

The Newport community has been very supportive of their efforts, Jones said, noting that Postmaster Spirits has received assistance from the Newport Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Merchants and Planters Bank. To begin the transformation, 36 square yards of concrete were poured to create a new floor, and they installed a new roof and joists. The lobby now contains a bar area, and a section of post office boxes will be used to deliver flyers detailing upcoming events. Jones and Finch made a special effort to use local contractors and tradesmen, Jones said. The incandescent lighting was replaced with efficient LED lighting.

The equipment to support the transformation of the former post office to a distillery, complete with a tasting room, has come from a number of locations. Much of the equipment is seeing a second life after being discarded by another business or industry.

“We’ve bought a lot of eBay pieces,” Jones noted.

Equipment has come from the Flowers Bakery in Batesville. A bottling line that the Hiram Walker distillery in Fort Smith had mothballed is now the centerpiece of the operation that the public will see on distillery tours. Hiram Walker, a huge international brand, replaced the bottling line because it was capable of filling just 300 bottles per minute and was too slow for that operation, but it is more than sufficient for Postmaster Spirits, Jones said.

A repurposed underground geothermal heat exchanger has been installed to cool the distillery’s process water from 190 degrees Fahrenheit down to 80. It uses a small pump that circulates water through a radiator that is buried 10 feet down. Copper distillation equipment that is being fabricated in the United States will soon be installed for production to begin in 2019.

The company expects to start vodka production soon with specialty and flavored vodkas the first to roll off the former Hiram Walker line. The label on the first specialty vodka will likely contain a play on President Donald Trump’s name, and Jones believes it will appeal to collectors on both sides of the political aisle.

“We hope to have some premium products, do some with Arkansas spring water” for example, Jones said.

Grain grown in Arkadelphia was used to make the whiskey, he said, noting that the bottles the company will use are made in Jonesboro and the shipping boxes are made in Waldenburg.

“We’re focusing on ‘Arkansas made, Arkansas grown,’” Jones said.

The co-founders have been at their quest for two years.

“We have learned to estimate the time something takes and triple it,” Jones said, “but we expect to be bottling early next year.”

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