South Lake local starts craft distillery
October 16, 2011
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Prohibition in Tahoe? Nope. But we’ve got moonshine … Tahoe Moonshine, that is. And this booze isn’t brewed in bathtubs.
“Everything is so good,” said Jeff Van Hee, owner and chief distiller at South Lake Tahoe’s new craft distillery when asked what his favorite concoction is. “I go around. It was probably the whiskey first.”
Van Hee has already created more than 5,000 bottles of vodka, whiskey, gin, and two types of rum. He’s been in the process of starting Lake Tahoe’s own brand of liquor for years and the products he’s worked so hard for are within weeks of hitting the shelves.
“Within two weeks, you should be able to get it in Nevada,” he said.
Van Hee is still negotiating with distributors in California, but he hopes to have bottles in stores for the holidays. The price will hover around $25 per bottle, depending on the type.
“I’d say everything is top shelf,” Van Hee said, looking over the full oak barrels. “It could probably sell for $40 to $50 a bottle, but I’d rather keep it where the locals can drink it.”
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Nearly all of the ingredients Van Hee uses to distill the liquors are bought locally or within the U.S. The juniper berries, cardamom, coriander and ginger in the Jagged Peaks Gin are all from California, as is the wildflower honey used in the Snowflake Vodka. The corn in the Stormin Whiskey distillation is GMO-free. The bottles are made in the U.S. And all of the water used in the process comes straight from Tahoe’s tap before it’s cleaned of chlorine with a charcoal filter. The one ingredient Van Hee buys from outside the country is sugar-cane juice from Costa Rica.
“The guy uses the best ingredients he can get,” said Giancarlo Pellegrino, general manager of Campo, a new restaurant in Reno that will carry Tahoe Moonshine products after they open Nov. 2. “It’s small production. He won’t be able to keep up with the big guys, but his product is really, really good.”
Pellegrino and Van Hee have even discussed making specialty batches of liquors for the restaurant. Van Hee has already experimented with a few flavors like peanut butter vodka, which carries a sincere (smooth, not crunchy) peanut butter aftertaste. With such a small operation, he can try new stuff easily and without much consequence.
“That’s what’s cool about a craft distillery,” Van Hee said.
All of the distilling, bottling and labeling will happen in Tahoe Moonshine’s South Lake Tahoe industrial area space. Van Hee figures he can pump out 2,500 bottles a month by himself and 8,000 with the help of a few friends.
Not only is distilling something he enjoys, but Van Hee sees the endeavor as a smart business investment. With distilled spirits sales already up from last year and a growing push to buy local, he hopes Tahoe Moonshine will catch on.
“I think this product is better than what’s out there,” he said. “I’d love to be able to just do this and support my lifestyle.”
But it hasn’t been exactly easy. He’s had to file for a state permit and a federal permit that took three years to be approved.
In the meantime, he worked as a contractor, brewed beer – a hobby he’s pursued for more than a decade- and took classes and workshops on distilling.
“He spearheaded it out of thin air,” said long-time friend Mitch Neary. “He’s worked with some of the top distilleries to figure this out.”
Van Hee’s familiarity with various crafts like cabinet-making help with his attention to detail. And his family even has a history of distilling.
“My grandpa was a bootlegger,” Van Hee said with a smile. “I’m just following family tradition.”