There is a romantic image of the American distillery—an old rickhouse at the end of the road, a grizzled old whiskey maker pulling a sample from a barrel, the sun setting on a single copper still that’s been in service since before the 18th Amendment was ratified. A laboratory-esque setup in suburban Connecticut does not exactly fit into that mold. But that is what and where Ultra Pure is. And if you drink alcohol, chances are good you’ve had alcohol from there, but you probably don’t know it.
Even the name, Ultra Pure seems like it’s begging for anonymity from the public. It sounds like the spirits version of a generic big box store. And in fact, that’s sort of what it is. While distillery operations around the country practically shout about their limited production runs, Ultra Pure makes alcohol in bulk. “We can provide everything, from alcohol that’s ready to bottle, to alcohol that can be redistilled and made their own. It’s sort of like the food industry where one person provides something that another person can package and sell,” says Bryan Geschwill, Ultra Pure’s head of sales and marketing. Bulk alcohol seems like a rather odd niche to occupy in a spirits world with an inclination for terms like “small batch” and “hand crafted” that borders on obsession, but Ultra Pure’s footprint is substantial. The most study from the American Craft Spirits Association put the number of craft distilleries (those that produce less than 750,000 gallons or owned by a company that produces more than that) at 1,589, and there are another handful of large distilleries like Jack Daniels or Tito’s Vodka. Geschwill says Ultra Pure supplies its products to about 700 of them. We should be clear here: That does not mean that almost 50 percent of the alcohol in this country comes from Ultra Pure—just that almost 50 percent of spirits companies use something from Ultra Pure. The company didn’t provide numbers on the actual volume it supplies.
But because its products are used in so many places, it has a sort of all things to all people portfolio. When Geschwill says that Ultra Pure has everything, he means everything. “We could have thousands of barrels of bourbon aging at any given time,” he notes. Ultra Pure doesn’t just do the distilling; the company works with a cooperage, buys oak barrels and ages whiskey all over the country. But it also has what is essentially the vodka version of the orange juice concentrate you buy at the grocery store. It comes in at 192 proof and you can bring it down to proof by simply mixing it with water. The Sporkful and NPR’s Dan Pashman recently experimented with some of Ultra Pure’s “just add water” concentrate and made a vodka that alcohol scientists rated more highly than Grey Goose (although it was from a purely chemical perspective). Geschwill likens what Ultra Pure does to a lumber company sending wood off to a carpentry shop. “What the carpenter does with the wood is up to them. These private little distillation companies are artists. They’re doing all kinds of cool flavor profiles.” He didn’t disclose any specific little distillation companies, but said that there are a lot of ways to manipulate the bulk bases for vodka, gin, rum and everything else. Notable differences in a final product can come from something as simple as the water added to proprietary infusions or as complex as a complete redistillation (think about the number of vodka bottles you see on shelves that boast of being seven, eight or nine times distilled).
A company like Ultra Pure removes a lot of the prohibitive barriers to entry for people who want to get into the alcohol business. It can take hundreds of thousands of dollars, the knowledge to navigate an agonizingly complex permitting process, not to mention advanced chemistry degrees to launch a distillery from the ground up. If you show up with nothing but a logo and a dream, Ultra Pure can at least help you start dabbling. In fact, it is probably through those logo and a dream types that Ultra Pure has already ended up in your glass.