A new local craft distillery is offering spirits made from nature’s bounty, and for those wishing to taste the “sweet life,” Nauti Spirits is just the spot.
Steve Miller, a retired lieutenant commander and JAG Corps officer from the U.S. Navy, had a vision to open a craft distillery in Cape May County. What Miller, an energy industry attorney, lacked was a location or land. “I had a business plan and a vision that my wife didn’t try to talk me out of,” said Miller a Cape May Point and Annapolis, Maryland resident.
Twenty years ago, Corey and Dorey Bryan purchased 60 acres of farmland off Shunpike Road in Lower Township. They dreamed of a horse farm, a place to raise their children while being good stewards of the land. While Les Rea a local farmer, grew soy beans on their land, Corey operated The Lemon Tree, the family restaurant on the Washington Street Mall. Dorey similarly, worked at West Cape May elementary school.
At the same time, the Bryan’s children and Steve Miller’s son Charlie, are playing and fishing on the Cape May beaches. Despite the small town atmosphere of Cape May, the children’s parents had not met.
With help from realtor Chip Kaithern, Miller searched the Cape May area for over six months looking for property or land to build a craft distillery. The pair came up empty. However, Miller refused to let go of his vision.
“For years I had a fascination with craft distilleries around the country and had been bitten by the bug, taken classes, read all the books I possibly could,” Miller said. “With the CFO of Constellation Energy, Gene Van Slyke, my best friend, we put together a business plan for a craft distillery.”
Miller was on the verge of ending the search for his dream distillery’s suitable location. “I sat down one night and began matching open spaces on Google Earth with the state’s list of preserved farmland,” Miller explained. He located the most interesting parcel on his computer. “I asked Chip Kaithern if he knew Corey and Dorey Bryan?” “Know them?” responded Kaithern, “I’ve known the Bryans my whole life.”
For the next six months both families got acquainted and did their due diligence. “It was important for us that Steve had strong family values and a good moral compass,” Dorey Bryan explained. For the Bryans, taking care of the land was important. Miller, with four years of planning and a substantial down payment on distilling equipment with Vendome Copper and Brass works, was pleased to see the farm-to-table distillery find a home.
Nearly four years earlier, Steve Miller was harvesting knowledge and partners to get Nauti Spirits Distillery, the states largest, off the ground. Along with the Bryan’s farm investment, Miller teamed up with friends and constituents to invest in the project. In addition to other Constellation Energy partners, Steve Kindle of West Cape May and Eric and Kaitlin Woodrow of Peabody Construction added to the blend.
The Nauti name was derived from Steve’s long naval career and the lesser known history of Cape May’s role in the rum running business of the 1920’s. Together, with Bryan’s preserved farm producing sweet potatoes ( the main ingredient) Nauti Spirits began producing vodka earlier this year.
Turning sweet potatoes into vodka combines art, science and creativity according to Miller. Nauti Spirits hired Brendan Wheatley to oversee the distillation process. Wheatley had spent over 15 years in the spirits industry developing a uniquely American approach that draws on Japanese and French distillation practices. Presently, Wheatley is turning sweet potatoes into vodka, molasses into rum and now wheat into gin. State regulations require 51% of the ingredients in the farm to table operation come from farming assets controlled by the distillery.
In addition to the 60 acre preserved farm invested by the Bryan’s, Nauti Spirits leases Cumberland County farmland from the Muzzarelli family in Vineland and corn and other grains from Rabbit Hill farm in Shiloh New Jersey. Both farming operations are multi-generational farms.
Prior to breaking ground on the distillery, Miller invested nearly $ 1 million on equipment. The 750-gallon still, which goes through 8000 pounds of potatoes in one batch, the fermenters and other equipment had to be purchased and serial numbers included on the application to the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). State of New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control also place strict regulation on craft distilleries.
Nauti Spirits with proper planning has the ability to produce 60,000 gallons of spirits. New Jersey regulations currently stipulate production be capped at 20,000 gallons or 10,000 cases. Craft distilleries are considered as any producing up to 100,000 gallons. There are also regulations which mandate who can transport or deliver spirits off the licensed premises. “We had to have a high degree of confidence that the TTB would approve our license,” Miller said discussing the financial investment. “There was no guarantee we would get approved.”
The spirit of quality is also produced at the distillery. The sound of ice getting crushed the old fashioned way, by mallet in Lewes bags fills the tasting room. Mixologist Matt Reeves concocts blends made from ingredients fresh from the farm. On the day I visited Reeves just finished a batch of rosemary tea and watermelon mixed with vodka.
Nauti Spirits has the proper blend of ambition and patience. Perfecting their popular sweet potato vodka was the first priority. Distilling rum from high grade southern molasses came on line earlier this month and recently gin was introduced in the tasting room.
Soon brown spirits such as whiskey–which will require barrel aging for up to two years–will be available. In the mean time Nauti will make barrel finished whiskey available in the tasting room. Miller also hinted that the possibility of spirits flavored with beach plums could wind up on the menu. Bottled Nauti Spirits vodka and rum are available at Collier’s Liquor Store in Cape May and Sunset Liquors in West Cape May. The Washington Inn has the spirits available at the bar.