Monday Close-Up: Clear Water Distillery paves inroads to spirits industry with Pleasant Grove haunt

When some think of opening a distillery in Utah County, the perceived barriers for entry may seem high due to area residents’ strong ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s why there had been no distilleries in Utah County until March 2020.

That’s when Matt and Stephanie Eau Claire opened Clear Water Distilling Co., doing so in an area that has remained untouched by the spirits market.

The two came into the project thinking it would be difficult to open a distillery, with expected pushback from city councils and the community. It was the opposite in many cases.

“We were surprised, in a good way, with how welcoming people were,” Stephanie said. “Also, people assumed that we would have a hard time getting local customers because we’re in Utah County and nobody drinks. Instead, it’s actually been a draw. I think that we get a lot of attention because we’re in Utah County, people want to come see it and they’re excited that there is finally something here. Instead of it being the obstacle we thought it would be, it’s actually been a benefit.”

The original projected landing spot for the business was Lehi, which is where the couple lives. The work began with zoning and planning with the city council, which was supportive of the endeavor.

Matt said the city council recognized the growth of the area, including the expanding tech scene, and saw a new demographic coming to the area that would appreciate it.

“Having what you have there (San Francisco) to service the tech folks who are then moving here, they’re going to want those kind of cultural opportunities to take advantage of,” Matt said.

As work began to secure a facility in Lehi, a prospective landlord actually turned down their application as a tenant because they did not want a distillery in the building. This was the first instance of any pushback that Clear Water experienced.

After moving on to find a location in Pleasant Grove, the process had to be repeated with the new city council. The experience did not change, as the Pleasant Grove City Council was all ears for a distillery coming to the city.

After applying for over 15 licenses total, Clear Water had a path to opening.

Pleasant Grove city made the announcement official in a Facebook group, and while some were critical of the business, a large majority of people came to Clear Water’s defense and welcomed any new business to the area.

“As far as being in Utah County, it was definitely different than we had imagined but much less of an issue,” Matt said of the expected challenges to opening.

The city councils really made Utah County out to be a business-friendly place, one where a distillery could potentially grow just as many other businesses have.

After securing a location and the licenses, the struggles of starting a distillery from scratch came into play. Prototypes were put together to bottle for an opening and things were ready to go.

The pandemic hit just weeks after opening the location’s tasting room and tours. For a time the business shut down completely but had to get creative with its reopening.

Matt wrote a procedure to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that would allow for curbside pickup at the distillery, essentially expanding the packaging agency into the parking lot. It was approved and the company had to roll with the punches of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another move came as the distillery moved to online sales and eCommerce, allowing products to be sold across the country, with Clear Water Distilling Co. being available in 30 states.

“The one distributor we have in Los Angeles, they cover from San Diego to Santa Barbara, has five times the population of Utah just in that area,” Matt said. “We make a better margin for things we sell here because we don’t have the middle man, but it’s growing. We’re still here. I think we’re going to make it through this no problem and then this summer things are going to really take off.”

The move out of the state comes as somewhat of a necessity as its products have not been put in the Utah DABC stores yet. This is due to legislative action requiring the department to reduce the number of labels offered in the stores for every category of spirit. Therefore the stores only carry the labels that move the fastest.

This move is different from the state supporting the beer community through its longtime stance on the alcohol by weight percentages that could be sold in grocery stores and gas stations. It’s been a different experience for distilleries.

While the ebbs and flows of the pandemic have been felt, Matt is looking forward to an explosion come the summertime. He related it to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the iconic party times of the Roaring Twenties.

While the growth aspect of the company is important, at the core of every company comes the product. While many distilleries start off with a gin, vodka or rum, Clear Water is taking a different path.

The path is one Matt likened to the company’s motto: “Be Defiantly Different.” The unique spirit types are a way to separate the company in the market. This attitude of experimentation and creativity has driven Clear Water to produce spirits that are not seen at other distilleries.

For instance, one of the flagship spirits of the company is the Josephine Eau-De-Vie. The spirit was the first drink that Matt crafted on a still that he received as a Christmas gift one year. He had no clue what he was doing, but wanted to see what a sangria would taste like after being distilled.

He thought it would taste terrible, but he was surprised to find that it was great.

Another recent project Matt took on was using maple syrup from New York with a specific strain of yeast to give the drink a buttery taste as well. He ended up working with the yeast producer on a product that had not been developed and added some grains, wheat and oats to give it a desired toffee taste and mouthfeel.

Again, he came up with a great combination.

While the maple syrup project turned out great, the bigger question is, how do you categorize the spirit? It’s not a whiskey, it’s not a rum, so what is it?

The couple characterized the company’s products as specialty spirits.

“We might release a gin someday, but we asked, what would happen if we took a different spirit and used a botanical basket?,” Stephanie said. “We can’t call it rum because there is apple in it, and then using the botanical basket, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau won’t classify it as rum or gin. So what? It’s really good and it belongs in every home bar because it goes in everything.”

That aspect of it is what the Eau Claires enjoy. Veering off of the beaten path to pave new ways is what they do best.

The two added that they are risk-takers, and after being together for over 25 years, they want to just live life. If they see something that seems cool, neat or interesting, they’ll pursue it.

As for the company itself, Matt said Clear Water is primarily a premium brand.

“We don’t cut corners, we don’t want to sacrifice anything, we want to make the best that we can possibly make,” Matt said. “We have a lot of pride in our products and what we’re putting together. We also want to give bartenders a new palette. We want to not necessarily be different for the sake of being different, but just to have the freedom and flexibility of not feeling like we’re tied to these categories. Being a pioneer in a truly crafted spirit that’s not categorized.”

While pioneering this new aspect of the spirits industry, the company is a pioneer in Utah County.

Matt looked at the challenges of opening in a barren county as another obstacle, which it did not really turn out to be. It’s just that nobody wanted to try it.

When asked about any fears with the business, Matt said there are not many.

“There’s a fear of making sure that the business survives, thrives and there are all of these unknown things,” Matt said. “From a macro level or a strategic level, not at all. We’re going to drive through this as best we can and if we fail for whatever reason, it’s not going to be anything in our control.”

The next step for the company is continued expansion. Clear Water is in the process of signing a deal to sponsor the Jacksonville Jaguar tailgates on game days and the same company is going to start tailgates for the Las Vegas Raiders.

Other aspirations include the products being sold abroad, with Matt believing the company could see some success there as well.

In closing, Stephanie chuckled and said that everyone involved with Clear Water is a liquor snob. They take pride in the products and believe in not releasing a product that would not be another brand’s flagship spirit.

It’s easy to see that Clear Water is blazing new trails in Utah County, bringing along unique and delicious spirits with them.

For more information on Clear Water, visit the company at 564 W., 700 South, Suite 401 in Pleasant Grove, or online at www.clearwaterdistilling.com.

Source: Daily Herald

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