Hard liquor with an Indiana flavor

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - There is a new business category about to take hold in Indiana, hard liquor with a local flavor.

Indiana might be a little late to the game (after all, prohibition ended nearly 85 years ago), but more local distilleries will soon have the right to operate here. Technically, they are "artisan distillers" and they are to hard liquor what craft breweries are to beer.

According to University of Indianapolis business professor Matt Will, "The two industries are almost identical, except the beer industry had a little bit of a head start. So, their rules were relaxed first, the distillery rules are being relaxed now, so you're going to see the same kind of evolution in this industry that you saw in beers."

But, there is a handful of these new hooch sellers that had a head start three years ago by negotiating arcane state laws to get one of the early permits that allowed them not only to make spirits, but to sell them directly to the public without having to go through a third party like a liquor or grocery store. One of them is Hotel Tango Whiskey, which operates out of an old near south side warehouse. They have a tasting room (basically a bar) and if you like what they sell, you can buy it right there. After three years in business, co-founder Brian Willsey says it's going well: "It's a good old-fashioned hand-grown product. People want to know where their products come from, they want it to touch their community in a way, they want to be responsible for those people who are working to make a living in their neighborhood."

Hotel Tango is a true small start-up business. The head brewer is a 2016 Purdue chemical engineering graduate. The product comes out of the still and has to age in barrels, sometimes for years, and workers bottle it by hand and number each bottle with a sharpie. In our high-tech world, it's a low-tech start-up. In 2017, the field is opening up. The state legislature is allowing more players in the game and not every one will be a small operator. Sun King (you probably know them for their beer) is planning a major push into spirits. The company owns property in Carmel, adjacent to the Monon Trail, where it will build a $5 million, 15,000-square-foot facility, including production, tasting and sales floor, and event space in the heart of Carmel's trendy 'Midtown' area. Sun King President Bob Whitt has a high level of confidence that the new venture will work: "It's also a very natural evolution. The first steps in making spirits basically involve the same steps as making beer."

It's also moving into a great neighborhood - an important re-development area that will tie the Palladium to the old downtown. It is also right across a green space from an under-construction financial services company that will eventually have up to a thousand workers -- apartments, and other businesses. "There is really no distillery in Hamilton County," said Sun King's Whitt, "and we will have a built in clientele of 850 young professionals next door." Eventually, Allied Solutions will have as many as a thousand employees and the new Sun King Distillery plans to grow right along with it.

The big guys may have a slight advantage, but the business is still very small and very young. Experts like Will says there's plenty of room for everyone right now. Even Hotel Tango's Brian Willsey welcomes the big dogs into the fight for customers. "Generally speaking," he says, "a rising tide rises all ships, bring awareness to our industry is what we're all about."

As the business matures, he knows that new players will come in. He also knows that some will fail (just as not all micro-breweries can make it work). He's an irrepressible optimist: "We literally started with nothing and now we have something and that's something that really ... you've got to be proud of yourself for that."