Grain to Glass
Wonderbird Spirits make gin with a Delta twist
Words by Erin Austen Abbott
Photos by Andrew Welch
Two words you don’t often hear together are rural and distillery. But, go one step further and tack on Mississippi, and you are genuinely left curious. Well, Wonderbird Spirits in rural Taylor, Mississippi, is working to redefine what you think of when you think of gin. As a world-class awarded distillery, it quickly accomplishes one of its goals.
“We never set out to make cocktail-specific gin, but rather an incredible gin,” shared one of the three founders, Rob Forster. “The commitment that the three of us [Chand Harlow and Thomas “Tom” Alexander] made to each other and what our vision has always been, has been the same. We wanted to make something really, really special. Our goal has never been to make a $23 bottle of gin. We have always set out to make something truly exceptional and meet all of our standards first.”
Having control of what that looks like has always been important to Forster, Harlow, and Alexander. The first question they had to ask is, Are we going to start farming? “We wanted to control it from the ground, and we wanted this to be of Mississippi and of this place. And for us, that meant buying local agriculture. We tried tons of corn from all over the state, sweet potatoes from Panola County, and then we heard about a great rice farm down in the Delta and got in touch with Mike Wagner that runs Two Brooks Farm. Their rice is amazing, and their farming techniques are amazing. They’ve been great partners to us. Super dynamic and such good people,” shared Forster.
Moving to Water Valley and then to Oxford, from Los Angeles, without a proper plan as to what he wanted to throw himself into, was where Forster found himself several years ago. “I mean, I knew that I wanted a project. I wanted an entrepreneurial project, a creative project. Tom came through on a road trip to visit, and as we started to show him around, he started to see the possibilities. It was the right thing at the right time,” said Forster.
The missing link was Laurel, Mississippi native Chand Harlow. What felt like happenstance was the luck of a mutual friend, Clay Jones, bringing the three guys together. With a shared vision of creating a grain-to-glass gin and “being really good at one thing,” they got to work on what we, the consumer, now know as their flagship gin, No. 61. “We love gin for the creative freedom that it allows. Juniper is the only thing that must be in gin to make it gin. Otherwise, the world is your oyster. Gin represents a small portion of the spirits market, so there’s a lot of room for growth. It’s a classic liquor,” said Harlow when discussing the flexibility at Wonderbird. “We didn’t do rice because this was unique, but because it was something that we wanted to experiment with. And it was that rice that worked for us. We tried other varieties of rice, and it wasn’t very good. It was a happy accident that we came across the Two Brooks Farm jasmine rice specifically. So, we are the only distillery in the western hemisphere that is making gin out of rice, and there are only two other individual distillates in the world. We didn’t do any of this to be rare; we did it because that’s what we came across that made the best gin we thought we could make.
Taking the time to slow down and experiment with their botanical recipes is also very important to Wonderbird. “Once we realized that we could make raw alcohol out of rice, and that was a huge undertaking, the other monster thing was deciding to do each of our botanicals individually. Almost no other distillery in the world does it that way, not because they don’t understand why, but it’s just that much more labor-intensive,” said Forster. They distill each of their ten botanicals individually to precisely express the essence of those botanicals. Then a fraction from that distillation gets blended into that formula. The first experiment to come to fruition was the No. 97, the Magnolia Experimental, which showcases the midsummer Mississippi magnolia. “For anyone that’s ever put their face in one of those knows it’s a completely unforgettable experience. It’s incredible. The fact that we were able to manifest it in a distillate was surprising to us and a huge thrill. Once we were able to do that, we were like, ‘Let’s build a gin around that.’ Then it’s the three of us around a table for six weeks, iterating, iterating, iterating. We work out the balance to pull all the notes out,” shared Forster.
No. 61, the Wonderbird flagship gin, is a very complex gin. Harlow said, “It has particular flavors to it that you need to be paying attention to. When you start adding a bunch of stuff to it, you start losing some of that complexity, and you start to lose the No. 61 you started with. The goal is not to make this as difficult as possible. The goal is to make the gin as exceptional, as surpassingly good, as possible. We are trying to meet our own par every single step of the way.”
When they acquired their 20 acres, just a few miles outside of Oxford, they walked the property with a forager from the middle of Mississippi. He found several exciting things that grow there, throughout the seasons, that could be right as an additive for a botanical build. “We let providence play a role in these things, so we don’t have a plan,” added Forster in regard to what’s next for their botanical recipes.
If you’ve been to a Wonderbird picnic, you know how fun and laid-back they are. It’s an odd blend of taking you out of your standard element, your busy day-to-day, while also making you feel a part of something special. You get a feel for the community that Wonderbird is creating. As a good cocktail can bring people together, a Wonderbird picnic can do the same. “We are out in the country, so it’s been great to get the community involved and active on the property. We want people to come here. We want people to see what we are doing. So, the picnics are also fun to get people in here, trying different cocktails,” shared Harlow.
Forster added, “They are terrific for us in terms of just becoming part of the fabric of the community. When we have two or three local food trucks, a local band, maybe a few local artists—look, we are all looking for a little more community these days, and those things put a big smile on your face. So, on the macro level, it’s worth it.”
Making an excellent martini gin has been something that Alexander, Forster, and Harlow all agreed on from the beginning; that was a goal. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, they found their favorite Wonderbird cocktail in the wild. Over a special dinner, the bar program at the famed Momofuku restaurant created four cocktails using Wonderbird Spirits gin. Of the four cocktails, which they all agree were all wonderful, one stood out above the rest, a sake martini, bringing this Wonderbird goal full circle. They were kind enough to share the recipe for you to make at home:
In exchange for vermouth, use sake
Two ounces of Wonderbird Spirits (you can use No. 61 or No. 97)
One ounce of Daiginjo Sake
A pinch of sea salt
Stir to dissolve the salt before adding ice, then add ice, stir to cold, strain into a martini glass.
Garnish of choice, but olive is what the Wonderbird guys recommend.
Growing Wonderbird on both a physical level and on a market level is the goal as they continue to grow and learn. And continue to create a darn good gin.