Hayes Kelman is a fifth generation farmer whose family raises wheat, grain sorghum and soybeans on 8,000 acres in southwestern Kansas. While Kelman intends to continue farming, his creative idea will add value to farm products.
Kelman says vertical integration is the main idea behind the Dodge City, KS distillery he started with his father Roger and their partner Chris Holovatch, also a farmer.
“How can we use what we make to make something else?” said Kelman as he talked about why a farm-to-bottle distillery made sense. “The other reason was to demand our own price. With commodities, we’re stuck with whatever the market will pay. This way, we’d be on the other side of the system.” The Boot Hill team will grow all the grains for their products and only purchase ingredients they can’t grow themselves.
The Boot Hill Distillery process began in 2014, with the initial challenge of finding a suitable location. Kelman says they considered constructing a shed on the farm or a large metal building outside of Dodge City, but when they learned that Dodge City was preparing to demolish a historic building on top of the Boot Hill Cemetery, they realized this was the perfect location.
The building purchase turned out to be a marketing boon for the distillery. Kelman has learned the rich history of Dodge City and enjoys recounting tales of the town’s early days with visitors.
“Fort Dodge was built to protect travelers on the wagon train headed to Santa Fe,” said Kelman. “The general of the fort decided that alcohol could not be served within five miles of Fort Dodge, but an enterprising young man, George Merritt (GM) Hoover wanted to sell whiskey. GM went back east, picked up a few barrels of whiskey and came to the center of Fort Dodge with a handkerchief on his wagon wheel. He used that to measure five miles from Fort Dodge to a random spot that happens to be about three blocks from the distillery. He put sod down, put a plank of wood over the top and started selling whiskey by the ladleful out of the barrels. We like to tell the story that Dodge City was truly born from a barrel — without whiskey, the city might not be here.”
Kelman says rye whiskey was one of the first spirits he wanted to make. “We wanted to try some barley on a single malt whiskey, and triticale (a wheat x rye hybrid) was another,” he said. “We hadn’t grown rye, barley or triticale so Chris started growing rye and triticale and I put barley in. It wasn’t much different than wheat, so it wasn’t tough to switch over.”
As a farmer, Kelman was accustomed to solving problems, so he drew on that background to figure out the distilling process. “We approached it like it was a problem,” he said. “We needed to make good whiskey. We had a basic understanding of basic chemistry, physics and a little biology, and pulled it all together. If it doesn’t taste good, what did we do wrong?”
Kelman and his partners spent about a year experimenting with full-scale distilling equipment before releasing any product. “We really wanted it to be right,” he said. “We wanted the first release to be a high-quality product.”
Boot Hill equipment includes a 500-gallon system mash tun, four 500-gallon fermenters and a 500-gallon stripping still with two five-plate columns. “That produces all the whiskeys and bourbons we make,” said Kelman. “We have a smaller 100-gallon pot still with an 18-plate column for vodka, and it also has a gin basket.” Kelman plans to eventually replace the original set up with a more robust and versatile system.
It was important to Kelman and his partners to create and produce their own recipes. He looked at mash bills when others posted them, but he didn’t want to hire a consultant to tell him how to make spirits.
Kelman enjoys the trial-and-error process that comes with distilling. “When I bring rye in, I want to distill 100 percent rye,” he said. “We get the full flavor of that grain and we can adjust it. We’ll know what the corn tastes like, what the wheat tastes like, then we can adjust the mash. Sometimes it might be better with 25 percent wheat, so we try it that way.”
One product that involved quite a lengthy process to perfect is Boot Hill’s Prickly Ash Bitters, fashioned after a product that was originally sold as a medicine in the early 1900s. “We decided to make that because one of the most famous pictures of the original Dodge City downtown front street shows the old buildings,” said Kelman. “Right in the middle is a well that says ‘try Prickly Ash Bitters.’ The Boot Hill Museum has recreated Front Street and the museum does a medicine show around how it was used as a cure-all, but no one had actually come up with what Prickly Ash Bitters actually is.”
Thanks to modern chemistry and determination, the Boot Hill crew perfected the bitters. They purchased a recipe and used gas chromatography to determine the compounds in the original product. They made a batch, which Kelman says tasted awful; a lot like medicine. They tweaked the recipe, using as many of the ingredients in the original compound as legally allowed.
“We played around with it for quite a while,” said Kelman. “It’s now an American amaro; potable bitters instead of aromatic bitters that you’d put in a Manhattan. It was a fun project and a fun product to sell.” The product is bottled in what resembles an old medicine bottle with an authentic-looking label that reflects the original medicine of its heyday. “Whether it was really was medicine or not is hard to say because there were so many snake oil products being sold at that time,” said Kelman, “but it’s fun that we were able to make something useful using a similar recipe.”
The Boot Hill tasting room is an integral part of the marketing effort, with the design reminiscent of an early Dodge City bar. The centerpiece is a Brunswick bar, built in 1902, which came from a bar in Dodge City. Pub-height tables create a communal feel, and Kelman says it isn’t difficult to convince someone to sit next to a stranger in a tasting room.
“It creates a feeling of community,” said Kelman, describing the tasting room. “In bigger cities, the cocktail scene is huge. In rural communities, people are still not sure they want to pay a little extra for a quality drink. But once they come in and try it, they realize the extra care we’ve put into something we really enjoy. We get all sorts of people here, and they’re friends before they know it.”
Kelman believes that a tasting room is a place to educate people; not only on how to use Boot Hill spirits, but how to use spirits in general and make a good drink at home. He says while beer and wine are relatively easy because they’re simply poured into a glass, cocktails require some forethought and effort. “Now people can make a nice cocktail with three ingredients,” he said. “It isn’t hard if you know the techniques. We’ve been lucky in hiring people who are passionate and spirits are their hobby. They enjoy the science side of it.”
One of Boot Hill’s tasting room employees teaches people how to enjoy a good cocktail. “It’s a huge accomplishment to figure out what someone’s taste is,” said Kelman. “We might first introduce something that’s a little easier to drink, then they’ll try a more bitter cocktail. They’re convinced that spirits are good, but never would have tried it until a friend dragged them to the distillery.”
When Boot Hill first opened, they couldn’t legally serve cocktails so the plan was to offer free samples under their microdistillery license. “We decided to try to get the law changed,” said Kelman. “We spent time and money, advertised the good it would do the community to have a full tasting room and bar and serve cocktails, and it passed.”
The Boot Hill Distillery cocktail lounge opened in February 2017, and Kelman says the change has taken the business to another level. “There’s nowhere else around to get a cocktail the way we produce it,” he said. “We’re doing a true, handmade cocktail with no mixes.”
Kelman’s goal is to have happy customers. “I want people to enjoy what they’re drinking,” he said. “People are realizing what we are. We don’t want to be a party bar — we want people to come in and have a mellow good time.”
Learn more about Boot Hill Distillery online at www.boothilldistillery.com.