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Crafting a narrative

Oklahoma Distilling Co. to open cocktail lounge, cidery, and meadery

Hunter Gambill, distiller at Oklahoma Distilling Co. (Inset) Stiff Shot coffee liqueur

Greg Bollinger

There is a perception gap in the minds of imbibers. The difference between a local craft beer and a national brand is understood, but in the world of distillation, the term “craft spirit” is often used indiscriminately. Too frequently, the marketing teams of big brands are able to sway consumers with unregulated terms like “craft” and “small batch,” leaving a general haze about their meanings.

Fortunately, Oklahoma’s latest craft distillery is soon to be better positioned to not only provide a level of transparency that is rare in craft spirits, but to educate consumers on their entire process. In just over nine months, Oklahoma Distilling Co. has launched a portfolio containing vodka, rum, two coffee liqueurs, four whiskeys, and a specialty spirit. Their distillery’s cocktail lounge is scheduled to open mid-October, followed shortly thereafter by an avant-garde cidery, Local Cider, along with a meadery, Angry Bear Honey & Mead.

“We want every customer to have the opportunity to learn something as opposed to simply being a consumer of our products,” distiller Hunter Gambill said.

Gambill’s career path has more turns than a pot still’s condenser. He began culinary school prior to attending college at Oklahoma State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was a food and beverage manager for three Nevada casinos, then learned how to make wine and distill spirits in grad school where his thesis was on mead. He also spent time in Guatemala, where he brewed beer and cooked at a small brewpub.

However, Gambill’s background isn’t purely epicurean. He spent a year volunteering for AmeriCorps and also lived in China working as a third-grade teacher, principal, and vice president of an international education company—not to mention his time serving the U.S. embassy as consular warden.

From his background as an educator, Gambill understands that one of the best ways to teach is through a story. Each Oklahoma Distilling Co. spirit has a connection to Oklahoma that crafts a narrative, reiterating their emphasis on sourcing locally and educating the consumer.

“For us, it’s telling that story and people knowing where things are coming from,” Gambill said. “For spirits that we are not producing ourselves, it’s being upfront and saying, ‘This is our process.’”

Oklahoma Distilling Co.’s first product, Indian Grass Vodka, was available in 150 stores on launch day—a success that Gambill attributes to the ability of people to connect with its Oklahoma narrative.

By definition, vodka starts as a distilled neutral grain spirit, so the primary way to differentiate is with the water used to bring the spirit to the desired proof for bottling. Oklahoma Distilling Co. uses Ice Age glacier water from Jet, Oklahoma, near Great Salt Plains State Park. This imparts a subtle minerality and a very slight salinity. The bottle is then garnished with a blade of Oklahoma’s state grass, Indiangrass, before sealing.

Gambill maintains a connection at every step of the production process. Whether it’s the grain for his whiskey, the honey for Angry Bear Mead, or the apples for Local Cider, he knows the suppliers on a first-name basis and can trace each ingredient to its source.

For Oklahoma Distilling Co., education doesn’t end in the distillery. Gambill’s career background provided insight into the funding issues facing Oklahoma’s educational system, and the distillery has partnered with UpliftEd to help support educators working within Tulsa Public Schools. 

The distillery’s strategy is focused on the long game and hiring talented, like-minded team members. Gambill’s most recent hire, T. Read Richards, has joined as their beverage manager. Richards recently won the title of Judge’s Choice at Philbrook’s MIX cocktail competition and has since passed his Certified Specialist of Spirits exam. Richards will be over the distillery’s cocktail lounge, where he will craft drinks with small-batch spirits not available by the bottle.

The cocktail lounge’s tentative hours will be 4–11p.m., and they’ll also serve carnitas tacos (a staff favorite). Oklahoma’s updated liquor laws have allowed for much of this expansion, but there is progress to be made. Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed the bill that would have allowed the distillery to sell their bottled products onsite.

Despite the slow rate of progress in modernizing Oklahoma’s liquor laws, Gambill continues to expand. Building on his culinary training and his insistence on crafting the entire process from start to finish, Gambill will be opening a restaurant as well as a dive bar on the distillery property at 7th and Utica. Some stories are ready to be told, while others still need to be written, and the narrative of Oklahoma’s craft spirits boom is only just beginning.

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