"Sailor Jerry" Ad Man Turns To History-Rich Tamworth For Whiskey Distillery

Nov 24, 2014

Norman Collins was famous for tattooing sailors. He hopped trains as a kid, joined the Navy, and set up an ink shop in Honolulu where he earned the nickname "Sailor Jerry".  When he died in 1973, he had no idea that one day there'd be a spiced rum with his name on it.

"Here's to life outside the lines. Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum."

In 1999, Steve Grasse helped turn Sailor Jerry the man into Sailor Jerry the brand.

"Sailor Jerry is a huge hit."

Last year, Grasse says, a million cases of Sailor Jerry were sold. But despite having a burgeoning hit rum on his hands, Grasse sold the brand five years ago and turned his attention to whiskey.

"How did I decide on whiskey?  Oh I think whiskey picked me."

Whiskey's surging popularity didn't hurt. US brown spirit sales are up 35% over the last decade.

"It's growing like wildfire.  It's growing like crazy." 

Before whiskey Grasse says cigarettes were his livelihood.  With a 20 million dollar budget from R.J. Reynolds, his ad agency marketed Kamel Reds to young professionals.  But Grasse, who lives in Pennsylvania, wants to leave a less controversial legacy for his kids.

David Grasse in downtown Tamworth
Credit Sean Hurley

  So 4 years ago he began to renovate three historic buildings in downtown Tamworth and built a brand new distillery that somehow fits in beside the local library.  

"I bought the old inn and declared I was gonna build a distillery there.  And rightly so the town was, who the hell are you?  And so we went through a period of I think 2 years of working with them on plans that everyone was happy with."

Grasse picked New Hampshire for the water. You can't frack in granite, he says. But he picked Tamworth for a different reason. A "Sailor Jerry" kind of reason.

"Good brand has to have - Good story.  Good liquid.  Good packaging." 

As a brand maker Grasse looked for, and found, his good story in Tamworth.  There might not be a tattoo artist with a cool nickname - but there are plenty of area legends...and there's Henry David Thoreau.

"And in his journals he mentioned going through Tamworth, so that was a point of interest to me."  

"Have new & memorable views of Chocorua as we got round it eastward. Stop at Tamworth village for the night," Thoreau remarked in a journal entry from July, 1858.

Not that we'll soon have a Henry's Finest Walden Whiskey but that Grasse senses in Tamworth not only a good watering hole, but a place to harvest history. Three whiskey brands are currently in production - their names a closely guarded secret.

"They will be for sale only at the distillery.  If we get a positive response, then we'll expand them nationally."

While Steve Grasse works on the brand, his older brother David has come to town to oversee day to day operations.

"You have to build it first. You can't say, hey I want to become a distillery and get your license and see how it goes." 

Matt Power checks a flask of infusing hops.
Credit Sean Hurley

  The Distillery is sectioned into three chambers. The main distillery to the left, a tasting room in the middle and to the right, a botanical kitchen where Matt Power vacuum seals strawberries and Tamworth cranberries in high proof alcohol.   

Potential infusions - Blueberries, Tamworth cranberries and strawberries vacuum sealed in high proof alcohol.
Credit Sean Hurley

"The strawberry I'm a little concerned about not preserving well. I think it'll be great today, but we'll see in a few weeks how it stores."  

While Power works on infusions, Jamie Oakes spends his time in the distillery itself filling white oak barrels with various spirits - and tasting what he's made.  

"Right now if you tasted what we have that's only been in here a month or two, you're gonna say sheesh, that's real harsh."

Jamie Oakes beside the Vendome still.
Credit Sean Hurley

  But over time the white oak sugars from the barrel combine with those of the whiskey in a process Steve Grasse describes as one part science, one part magic.

"It's called a spirit cause you've unleashed the spirit of the plant, the life force in it."

While Grasse is cautious about looking too far into the future, he is hoping to unleash another kind of force as well.

"I want the place to pay for itself.  And then have a few hit brands of it that make a lot of money. Hopefully we'll get another Sailor Jerry out of this at some point."

Sailor Jerry the man never got a chance to see his life grow into legend by way of a Caribbean spiced rum.  But those in Tamworth will soon get a taste of their own history.