Jim and Liz Harrelson may not have known what they were getting themselves into when they decided to open a distillery, but Liz says that just three years into the business, they’re where they thought they’d be in 10.
Jim was a sheriff’s deputy when he and Liz met, and he often talked about how much fun it would be to retire and start a brewery. But the craft brewery market where the Harrelsons live in Modesto, CA was already saturated with great breweries, and they knew they probably couldn’t compete.
But Jim didn’t completely dismiss the idea of operating his own business. Jim and his brother-in-law, Paul Katuszonek, who was a police officer, often shared stories about their work while enjoying cigars and whisky. As Jim learned about craft whisky from Paul, he compared the processes of making good beer and good whisky.
“Before that, Jim was strictly a home brewer,” Liz recalls. “It was a hobby thing. Paul got him started with whiskies, and Jim is the kind of person who doesn’t just dabble in something. Once he’s interested, he goes all in.”
Liz says that as Jim studied the art and craft of whisky, he realized making great whisky is 80 percent making great beer. “The brewing and the flavor profiles are similar,” she said. “There are some things that come across differently in the distilling process, but a lot of the foundation is there.”
As the Harrelsons started exploring the idea of forming a business, Paul, who was Jim’s friend and biggest supporter, lost his life in an accident. “After the accident, we realized that life is very uncertain, and we should be working toward what we want to be doing,” said Liz. “We incorporated as an LLC on October 11, 2013, which was Paul’s birthday.” The name for the Modesto distillery, Do Good, is based on the Ben Franklin quote “Do well by doing good,” which is how Paul lived his life.
As a shout-out to first responders, all Do Good spirits are proofed to 91.1. “We do everything we can to support local businesses,” said Liz. “The majority of our grain comes in from less than 100 miles away. Several local farmers have been growing rye for us — some rye comes from an almond farmer who uses it as a winter cover crop. He was struggling to get rid of it, now he has an outlet for it. Next year we’re going to try to do something with heirloom corn.”
Jim is responsible for coming up with recipes for spirits. Liz says that several of their single malts are based on their favorite beer recipes. “Beechwood Smoked Single Malt started as a really nice Rauch style beer that we made for Oktoberfest years ago,” said Liz. “A friend was having an Oktoberfest party, and Jim made that beer. Some friends asked if he ever thought about distilling it. That’s before we were a licensed distillery, but we thought it was an interesting idea. Once we got up and running, that one came along nicely.”
Do Good Distillery just released Benevolent Czar single malt, which is based on a Russian Imperial stout beer style. Do Good’s website describes this choice as showcasing sweet malt flavors with big chocolate and coffee notes that blend well with the toasty oak and spice that come from aging in new oak barrels. Liz’s personal favorite is another new release, Do Good’s Double IPA Hop Flavored Whisky, which Liz says is based on an exceptional double IPA.
“Our bourbon is a standard bourbon recipe, which is a minimum of 50 percent corn,” said Liz. “Jim used his home brewing knowledge to understand which flavors would come across the still and what proportions of rye or wheat to use. Jim’s home brewing hobby has helped us set ourselves apart in coming up with unique interpretations on the classics. Our head brewer, Dano, was in Jim’s homebrewing club so they share ideas about flavors round with each other.”
Liz recalls thinking that Do Good’s original still, a 660-gallon pot still, was too big when Jim purchased it. But it’s still in use today, along with a continuous drip still, vodka still and a 60-gallon still used for research and development.
For now, bottling is done with a six-head filler, but there are plans for a more streamlined bottling and labeling system later this year. “Our bottle has a very slight taper that we really like,” said Liz, “and we’re confident that a new labeling machine can handle that.”
Do Good Distillery maintains an onsite tasting room, and recent legislation allows the company to sell direct in California. “We were really lagging behind with direct sales and laws that were friendly to craft distilling until recently,” said Liz. “Local representative Adam Grey has played a big role in getting direct to consumer sales for us.” Liz says they can now sell three bottles per person per day from the tasting room. Before the law changed, people could come to the tasting room and sample, then would be directed to a store where they could buy their favorites.
Since water is an issue for nearly every California business, Do Good Distillery has installed a system that allows them to reuse cooling water. “Distilling uses a lot of water,” said Liz. “We’re in an area where there are a lot of canneries, and it would be cheaper for us to just run the water through, but we’re one winter away from a big drought — or we’re in one — so we recycle. We have a tank and a condenser to cool it back down for the next phase.”
Do Good Distillery saved about 800,000 gallons of water last year by recycling, but they have also found a use for wastewater. Rather than discarding wastewater, it’s trucked to the anaerobic digester at Fiscalini Cheese Company in Modesto; which turns out to be less costly than paying the city to put the water down the drain.
“There’s no law saying we have to recycle our distilling or wastewater,” said Liz. “With the name ‘Do Good’, we’re putting some pressure on ourselves to make sure we’re doing the right thing, and maybe doing things a little bit better than we’re required to.”
Liz says making plans has been important because plans help set a path for the right direction, but she noted that very few people in business are still running with Plan A. “Growth has been good and we’ve been fortunate,” she said. “We’ve had good partnerships to contract distilling, and Jim is president of the California Distillers Guild, which provides good networking opportunities.”
Visit Do Good Distillery online at www.dogooddistillery.com/spirits.html .