It all started with a wacky idea to make some homemade Absinthe.
My husband Ryan first experienced the notorous Green Fairy on a trip to Prague in 2000. At the time, the Czech Absinthe house he visited served him a glass of Absinthe prepared the traditional way (1 part Absinthe, 3 parts ice cold water) with the addition of flare in the form of a flaming sugar cube.
Seven years later, Absinthe was officially allowed back into the U.S. drinking scene but bottles where upward of $80 each and contained a lot of green food dye.
After the market crash, money was still tight for us in 2014. In true Ryan fashion, he decided that making his own bottle of Absinthe was in order. And our Bootleg Botanicals adventure began.
While deciding to distill alcohol on a whim sounds a bit nutty, I’ve grown used to Ryan’s spur of the moment projects during our 25 year romance. Booze has consistently taken center stage in the form of Beer, Wine and Cocktails over the years.
Turns out, it’s actually in our genes. Ryan’s Great Grandfather was known for his home-based wine production and I apparently had Great Aunt’s who wrote recipes about adding tea to alcohol. Go figure!
To Distill or Not Distill, that was the question.
Modern Absinthe is most widely available in the distilled form. A brewing mash comprised of grain and various herbs & spices is fermented, then run through a metal Still where the alcohol vapors are extracted to create a high proof liquor. While distillation is a very old process, maceration (soaking the herbs & spices in a pre-distilled spirit to flavor liquor) is potentially older. Many of the infused high proof concoctions were used medicinally. During Prohibition adding flavoring simply made bad Hooch taste better.
After hearing his sales pitch, I decided setting up a Still for a small bottle of booze sounded costly and would take up too much space. But the nail the coffin for Ryan’s newest passion project was, if done wrong, our little home distillery could start our condo complex on fire. Add the little detail of fines or jail time and lets just say… I wasn’t convinced it was worth it. Maceration was the way to go.
Exotic Herbs & Spices by the Pound.
I come from a line of good cooks and have found as an adult that I also enjoy cooking. Traditional spices have always been a staple in our homecooked meals but after discovering all the different herbs & spices used in making alcohol, I realized I was clueless.
At the time we began our alcohol infusion journey, we lived in Portland, Oregon. There it was not difficult to find bulk spices during a quick trip to Whole Foods or Winco. But when it comes to exotic herbs like Wormwood, Melissa, Hyssop or spices like Grains of Paradise; a specialty shop is in order. As was the case when we set out on our experiment.
With one 4 oz bag of Hyssop at $8.50, sourcing the ingredients we needed really added up. Four ounces was the smallest quantity available for many of the specialty items. Tack on shipping and the “test” cost over $300.
Once our delicious smelling package arrived, testing commensed. At least 20 little glass jars were meticulously filled with the same amount of 190 proof Everclear. Next precisely weighed herbs and spices were individually added to a vial then photographed, time and date stamped. Ryan’s OCD science brain really kicked in!
After an initial flavor tasting was conducted complete with tasting notes of each herbal tincture, experimenting began one drop at a time.
It was trial and error. Some blends were terrible. There is a reason we only offer Gin No. 6 and No.9!
To prove our tastebuds weren’t out of touch, we invited some buddies over to try out our creations. Favorites were identified and the rest were tanked. The color on the Absinthe was of particular interest to us since many of the Commerical options relied on coloring at the time. To get the best green, the full 190 proof was a must but even with water dilution, it was too strong for most of us to enjoy fully. The recipe was tweaked and group consensus voted 170 the best flavor profile. However, bringing the proof down without prematurely louching the Absinthe proved a challenge. Through much trial and error a solution was discovered.
Launching through Crowd Funding.
We launched our first business, RocLok Hide-a-Key before Kickstarter was a thing. After struggling to bootstrap our little business for five years with little to show for it, Ryan suggested we try our infusion idea out through Crowd Sourcing before going all in.
Not knowing how to go about it we relied on advice from family to set up our very first Kickstarter campaign and launched it during a horrible snow-storm in January of 2014. The original goal was $5,500 which was a lot for us at the time. When the goal grew to over $30K in just 30 days we were over the moon!
Opening day at our tiny tasting room in Hillsboro, Oregon circa 2015 –
We look so young!
While our small business is comprised solely of two, both Ryan and I wear many hats here at Bootleg Botanicals. I studied Graphic Design so naturally I focus much of my time on all the marketing, product design and the website. Ryan’s keen attention to detail helps him hand batch each spice blend recipe down to a 10th of gram. He insists on purchasing all herbs in their whole form to only be ground prior to blending for ensuring optimal freshness and takes great pride in making sure each and every vial and packet of spices is as perfect as humanly possible.
Together we handmake all of our alcohol infusion and homebrewing kits from scratch down to hand packaging each coffee filter used in the alcohol infusion kits. While we are occasionally blessed with helping hands from time to time (THANK YOU Dida, Mom & Dad!) – 99% of the products shipped from Bootleg Botanicals have been handcrafted by Ryan and I alone.
Ryan and I sincerely appreciate your time in stopping by to discover what Bootleg Botanicals is all about. We love chatting about all things boozy, alcohol experiments or just how the weather is going in your neck of the woods. Please reach out if ever you need anything, we would love to hear from you!
CHEERS! ~ Melanie & Ryan Belshee