Cave Dwelling Spirits: S.D. Strong Distillery Underground
When thinking of small-batch spirits, many people have visions of bootleggers doing their work covertly and storing the finished product in a cave to avoid the authorities. For Steve Strong of S.D. Strong Distilling, the caves underneath Park University in Parkville, Missouri are where he produces his vodka, but it’s all on the up and up. Getting to the point of being the only distillery in the United States that makes vodka and other distilled alcoholic spirits in an underground cave, outside of illegal moonshiners of course, took a lot of work, but since March 2013, patrons have been able to enjoy the fruits of Strong’s labor.
Working for an acoustic guitar company full-time, Strong has played guitar in a few bands around the Kansas City area, some that have even gotten radio airplay. In 2010, his musical ventures led him to a band mate who was making his own vodka, and an idea that he would love to give homemade vodka to his friends as Christmas gifts. By doing some personal research on the subject, Strong learned what it would take to make vodka himself, and his adventure in making spirits began.
It wasn’t long afterward that Strong began the process of finding out what he needed to do in order to mass produce his own spirits legally. Even more important to him was figuring out how he could make it legally in his adopted hometown of Parkville. “I really like being a part of Parkville,” said Strong, “and making vodka in Parkville was something I really wanted to do.” Starting his due diligence, the first place he went to was Parkville’s fire marshal, where he learned about all of the legal necessities to make his dream happen. During that visit, it was suggested that the Park Commercial Underground caves below Park University would be a good spot to open his business.
While a lot of upstart businesses ask friends and family for investing, or more recently use online crowd-funding methods, Strong and his wife Lisa decided to start their business completely on their own. “She was really supportive of me starting this,” Strong said. “And I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else. This was our doing. I also didn’t want the added pressure of having investors to answer to either.” As of right now, Strong is basically the only employee of the company, but he has gotten a lot of volunteer help with various aspects of his business from friends; from labeling to assisting at liquor store tastings.
When it came to acquiring his equipment, there was one thing that was really important to Strong. “I always try to buy American when I can,” he stated. So instead of looking at the various German companies that make distilling equipment, Strong found a company in Maine to make his still. After getting this equipment, his location, and the rest of the must-haves, Strong received his distiller license in August of 2012. From then on, he was able to begin the process of making his vodka.
There was one major issue that arose, however, which delayed the unveiling of his vodka. Despite “Strong” being their last name and the desire to use it for their own company, an existing company had a similar name. The legality of sorting out the issue postponed the release of their vodka until March of 2013. Officially naming their company S.D. Strong Distilling, they had their launch party later the same month at Gomer’s in Parkville, with a tasting and bottle-signings.