Local Business

Published on January 9th, 2020 | by Elizabeth Tettleton

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WONDERBIRD SPIRITS: From Koji to Cocktails

Three Entrepreneurs Quit Corporate America for Juniper & Gin in Taylor, Mississippi

Throughout Mississippi, Oxford’s status as a food and beverage mecca steadily grows. Home to James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs Vishwesh Bhatt and John Currence, as well as Emily Blount’s acclaimed Saint Leo with its burgeoning cocktail program, Oxford boasts many treasures that make up a thriving culinary scene. Until recently, there were no local wineries, meaderies, distilleries, or breweries to pair with the food, so three entrepreneurs decided to change that.

Wonderbird Distillery in Taylor, Miss.

The Brains

Thomas Alexander, Rob Forster, and Chand Harlow each had different motivations for quitting their jobs, putting their lives and monetary resources on the line, to create Wonderbird Spirits.

Chand, the youngest of the three, dreamed of running his own distillery, having gained experience at a Brooklyn whiskey distillery before a mutual friend introduced him to Rob at Yalobusha Brewing Company. A few beers later, the two knew they wanted to create spirits in or near Oxford, and quickly made plans to meet with Rob’s longtime friend, Thomas. After a year of shuffling their lives to relocate to Oxford (Chand from New York, Thomas from Texas, and Rob from Los Angeles), the three ambitious partners found the perfect spot of land in Taylor, Mississippi, to build their distillery.

The rice distiller at Wonderbird.

The Product

A grain-to-glass product, Wonderbird gin is one of only three gins in the world made from rice. They tested corn and different varieties of potatoes, but ultimately were most happy with their rice spirit results. The use of rice affects the flavor profile in subtle and complex ways, and it allows the owners of Wonderbird to use a locally available Mississippi product, which in turn helps stimulate the economies of Mississippi rice growers. For Wonderbird, a partnership with Two Brooks Farms provides the ideal source of the rice they ferment for each gin run.

In order to use rice, Rob, Chand, and Thomas had to do a great deal of research, as this was relatively uncharted territory in the gin-distilling world. Following closely the practices of sake making, they borrowed Japanese distilling techniques to break down the rice into a usable product. One key element is the use of Koji, or aspergillus oryzae, which is an enzyme commonly used both for producing alcohol and in breaking down soybeans to make soy sauce.

Creating such a unique product meant recruiting expert opinions to ensure their product was on the right trajectory. After countless experiments and recipe tweaks, the entrepreneurs at Wonderbird narrowed down their favorite combinations to about a dozen. They then sought out the palate of craft spirits expert Todd Buckley of Seattle, who gave his honest opinion on his favorite gin recipes during a blind test, leading Wonderbird to select recipe No. 61—the final product you see on shelves today.

Wonderbird Spirits creates the only grain-to-glass gin in Mississippi. The gin is crafted directly from agricultural products, and the leftover solids from the rice grains go into cattle feed, helping reclaim expenses and ensure minimal waste. Another unique feature of Wonderbird’s gin is the use of natural resources: pine needles come directly from the property, and the red clover (a rare botanical for gin production) is locally sourced.

Thomas Alexander explains the distilling process.

The Bottle

Wonderbird Gin is smooth tasting, with notes of aforementioned pine and red clover, Meyer lemon, and other botanicals combined with the classic juniper flavor. My favorite way to enjoy it is straight from the freezer, with St. Germain or Chartreuse, or as a classic Gin and Tonic. Try The Old Bird (see below for recipe) if a mixed beverage is more your style, or stop by Snackbar, Track 61, SoLa, or one of the other many bars touting local hooch.

The gin’s appealing branding complements its luxe character: a sleek logo, sexy thick glass bottle, and sophisticated cork stopper. It is now available at nearly every liquor store in Oxford and, as of January 2020, around Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. You can also purchase Wonderbird Gin online at Seelbachs.com.

Beyond the Gin

Ole Miss Foundation, Saint Leo, and many others have already found the distillery to be a gorgeous site for cocktail parties. If you are an event planner, or just someone looking for a hip new spot to host a soiree, contact the distillers at info@wonderbirdspirits.com. They can also create personalized gift baskets with Jack Rudy cocktail syrups, olives, and other goodies.

The cofounders are dedicated to their community, eager to jump in where possible. They have been hugely supportive of arts events, sponsoring the open house for The Oxford Comma and offering a venue for the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council’s Literary Bit of Faulkner reading group and writing competition, among others.

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