Two years ago I had the pleasure of stumbling across a small distillery nearby that was, surprisingly enough, producing some very good liquor. Clearheart is one of those finds that you relish – local product, great quality, a personal touch: very hometown-y. At that time Jeff Quint and his crew were venturing into distilled spirits after reaching success with wines. I gather from Quint that the theory behind the transition (they still produce fantastic wines) was a mixture of a dream he has had to make fine crafted hard liquor and the thought that wine can become brandy and if you have a still, why not venture into vodka and anything else that may come about?
Beginning with simplicity and using what was around him, Quint began the adventure by concentrating on locally grown apples and grape scraps from his wines. From the apple brandy and grappa to a grain and fruit vodka that has a delicious apple base, the expansion has continued at a rapid pace despite a few set backs. As of 2009 Clearheart is also producing both a tempting lemoncella and luscious lamponcella (raspberry) along with an exciting gin and warm rum.
Yet it has not all been roses for Clearheart over the last year and while they are still running in the back of a liquor store while building their new and larger facility, the Iowa floods of 2008 threw a wrench in the spokes. Clearheart sits in the heart of Cedar Rapids, just outside the main downtown area through which the mighty Cedar River flows. It was that June that many of us along the river (and other rivers in the area) saw the waters rise to record 500-year flood levels. As the river flowed past one projection after another within 48 hours, more and more people found themselves fleeing homes and businesses and doing what they could to save their property.
Seemingly, Clearheart’s distillery should have been safe from the flood, but they soon found out that the water was coming. News like that causes one to move to action and if you have ever visited a distillery or winery, you can appreciate the amount of product and equipment that has the potential to be underwater. The crew did what they could and after the water reached a few feet above the floor, they could only wait for it to recede.
My first visit after the flood was seven months later and there were still signs of a disturbance in the distillery but it was still going full steam. The clean organization I saw on my last visit was no longer, the tasting bar gone, various tools laid here and there and paths wound through the expansive main floor. Things looked a little disorganized and the winery has been closed to the public since June, but if you didn’t know any better you would think nothing happened because everyone there is back to business as usual and looking straight into the future.
The sense of this quick recovery and the desire to innovate and go faster and bigger is felt when talking with Quint and his loyal team. They have bounced back with amazing resilience, are proud of their two new spirits, and talk excitedly about the new building and its features, including a new still and group tasting room. Excitement is in the air and there are further expansive plans for the near future, which I am not at liberty to expose so everyone has to wait. The story of Clearheart Spirits is one that you love to hear and are rare in the business today. I expect great things to come from each new small batch.