NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 4, 2014

Building a new dream

After return from Iraq, Seabrook vet opens micro-distillery

BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
STAFF WRITER

---- — SEABROOK — The label is simple but striking: “Solid Granite Vodka,” it reads, “Hand Crafted and Bottled in Seabrook, N.H., U.S.A.”

It’s the first alcoholic beverage made from scratch, bottled and sold by Smoky Quartz Distillery — one of only four micro-distilleries in New Hampshire and the only one owned and operated locally by Seabrook residents.

The company’s name and logo speak to its owner’s love of New Hampshire and profound sense of patriotism and service to the country.

“Smoky quartz is the New Hampshire state gem stone,” said company owner Kevin Kurland, 46. “I wanted something that represented the state.”

The image of an eagle’s head, fashioned in sharp angles and colors of smoky quartz, is an unmistakable likeness of the country’s national symbol: the bald eagle.

“This company is owned and operated and built by veterans, two generations of them,” Kurland said. “My father, Frank, did two tours in the Navy; my uncle, Ken, is a Vietnam combat veteran with two Purple Hearts; my brother, Frank Jr., spent 21 years in the Navy; my stepfather, Dean Loomis, did two tours in the Navy as a submariner, and I’ve been with the Air National Guard for 18 years.”

“I couldn’t have done this without their help and support,” he added.

As it happens, Kurland may never have embarked on this new venture had he not been deployed twice to Iraq. Had he not been sitting at Baghdad International Airport during his second deployment in 2008 awaiting the “all-clear” siren after an Iraqi rocket attack, he may never have read an article in the Wall Street Journal on the history of distilleries in the United States and the recent phenomenon of micro-distilleries that were forging the newest chapter.

“There were rocket attacks at the airport every other day,” Kurland said. “And you couldn’t move until the all-clear siren went off. It could take a while, so you’d better have something to read while you waited. When I read the story on distilleries, I thought it looked like a lot more fun than I was having at that moment.”

An engineer with a degree from the University of New Hampshire, whose day job is working as a consulting engineer for General Electric, Kurland got back safely to pick up his life in Seabrook with his wife, Deirdre, and three children, Shane, Alexandria and Seth. Then he started planning for his new dream.

While he wrote his business plan, he researched, took distillery courses and visited micro-distilleries around the country.

“A micro-distillery is one that produces 10,000 cases or less of hard alcohol,” Kurland said. “But as far as getting a federal license is concerned, we have to meet the same criteria as Jack Daniel’s.”

For five years he worked on his plan and journeyed through the process of getting licenses and funding. To get a federal license to make liquor, he needed, among other things, a building complete with production hall and tasting and show room. He found it in the 4,600-square-foot building at 894 Lafayette Road (Route 1), not far from where he lives.

He needed financing, which came from everywhere, he said, his own savings and retirement funds, and the financial investment of friends and family members.

“There are so many friends and family who stepped up to help out,” Kurland said. “I can’t thank everyone enough.”

What finally made it come together was a veterans program of financing through the Small Business Administration, accessed with the help of his local bank, the Seabrook branch of The Provident Bank, he said.

With a federal license, funding and approval from the Seabrook Planning Board last year, Kurland’s dream started to materialize.

He needed equipment and the expertise to install the vats and his 50-gallon and 300-gallon gleaming stills, plus the yards of piping. Along with the normal outlets, Kurland found such items on Craigslist, Amazon and eBay.

When it came to installation, he knew exactly who to call: his dad and uncle, retired pipefitters who worked on the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant.

“I had retired to Arizona when I got this call from Kevin telling me he was going to open a distillery,” Frank Kurland said.

His son laughs, remembering the conversation.

“There was this silence on the phone when I told him,” Kurland said. “But he and my uncle came.”

For months, the family of veterans worked, building day and night.

Then it was finally time to make some vodka. Kurland uses organic corn from Maine and spring water he gets from the Chamberlain family-owned company in Alton, N.H. On a production day, he’s at the distillery from 6 a.m. to midnight, six days in a row.

He tossed his first batch of vodka that didn’t measure up, he said, but the second batch of Solid Granite Vodka was perfect.

“People say it’s delicious,” he said. “We’ve had very good responses from people who’ve tasted it.”

To be listed with the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, Kurland had to provide a lot of information and four samples of his product.

“They liked it, all their tasters approved,” Kurland said. “We’ll be on the shelves at the state liquor stores soon. The people at the commission were helpful; it was good working with them.”

His soft opening was on May 23, and he’s open daily from noon to 8 p.m., with a grand opening planned for July 26.

Vodka isn’t the only liquor in the Smoky Quartz arsenal. Coming soon is Granite Lightning, a corn-based moonshine, and Kurland hopes to have a light gin ready by fall. On the horizon are liquors that require some aging, such as whiskey and bourbon.

By the end of the year, Kurland hopes to hire two to three employees. Social media has helped promote his company so far, he said, but he’s planning to get out and market his product personally, with ideas like vodka dinners and tastings at regional restaurants.

“Whenever you start a business, you’re your own biggest fan,” Kurland said.