Murray, Utah

Co-owner and head distiller Ethan Miller is making big waves in Utah’s craft spirits world with his nautical-themed distillery.

According to Miller, the name Holystone refers to “a type of stone used to scrub wooden ships in the navy.” He adds, “‘Holystone’ for us signifies teamwork” — humility mixed together with dedicated labor, in the service of a job well done.

Along with partners Barbie and Michael DeShazo, Miller opened the “luxury distillery” in 2019. The layout is “modeled on a 1920s cruise ship.” The “bulkhead” incorporates the distillery’s bottle shop and its “pretty opulent” tasting room. “It’s to pay homage to the Golden Age of travel, the 1920s,” says Miller. “We just really like the Art Deco style [incorporated within the distillery and on bottles] — kind of classic, but modern.”

Separated from the tasting room by an actual ship’s door with a crank in the middle is the distillery’s “engine room”: its production space, which houses three stills, one designed by Miller himself. And the spirits produced there fit into the premium category: “They’re higher-end in style, in process, and in the ingredients we use,” says Miller.

There’s a navy-strength gin — Utah’s first, according to Miller — made with orange and grapefruit peel, juniper, rosemary, and organic wheat. “Navy strength gin is pretty popular in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country that have robust cocktail communities,” says Miller, who spent time working at New Deal Distillery in Portland, Oregon, before returning to Utah. “It’s a gin for gin lovers. It’s a gin for gin cocktails. It stands up tall in a cocktail. And it’s the strongest gin you can get in Utah.” The first part of its name — Bosun’s — references the first mate on a ship.

But that’s not the only gin that Holystone makes: There’s also the “dark bluish-purple” Cerulia (benefiting breast cancer warriors), made with lavender, rose petals and buds, and orange peel. Miller describes it as “very floral, but not perfumey — it’s nice and delicious.”

There’s also a traditional-style absinthe — incorporating wormwood, as well as damiana, fennel, and anise — which is made by “infusion, then distillation, and then another infusion to round out the flavor and give it the final [greenish] color.” And the base for Holystone’s vodka, Perla, is a grape spirit (grappa) sourced from California. Miller says, “One of our focuses here at Holystone is to create products that either are hard to find in our market or you can’t get in the market or that people aren’t doing much of in the United States.”

That’s certainly the case with the distillery’s traditional-style shochu, a Japanese spirit, which Holystone produces for the Tsunami sushi restaurants. Miller says, “I don’t know anyone else making it in the United States, right now.” Holystone uses barley, as well as rice koji, which is cultured by the distillery. Miller says of the shochu, “It’s nice, creamy vanilla with mushroom [flavors], notes of honey, grain, cereal. It’s got a lot of very earthy-tasting notes to it.” Fittingly, he adds, “It goes great with sushi.”

Miller says of overall production, “We’re ramping up quite a bit.” The distillery produced 2,000 bottles after opening in 2019, then 3,500 bottles in 2020. Miller expects it will be around 5,000 bottles for 2021. About 35 percent of sales are made directly at the distillery. In the near future, it will be releasing a version of its Bosun’s Navy Strength Gin, which has been resting in a rye barrel from High West Distillery (where Miller once worked as a whiskey blender). Then, an apple brandy, made with cider from Mountain West Cider. “Then we’re going to be making a whole bunch of malted whiskey in the future,” he says.

Miller, who was born in Grand Junction, Colorado, grew up in Utah. He plays bass, paints, and sketches. In distilling, he found a “form of art I could create a career out of” — which had always been a goal of his. Furthermore, he notes how the Beehive State is coming into its own in terms of cocktail culture. “We have some good up-and-coming bars and restaurants that could stand toe-to-toe with some of the bars and restaurants in Portland or New York or any of the big cities,” he says.

Photos courtesy Holystone Distilling

Need proof of the state’s craft spirits ascendancy? Holystone Distilling won double gold for its Perla Vodka and a gold for its Tsunami Shochu at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And Bosun’s Navy Strength Gin won a gold medal from The Fifty Best. “We don’t really enter a whole lot of competitions, but we seem to do well when we do,” says Miller.

On each bottle from Holystone Distilling there’s the nautical expression “Bravo Zulu” — meaning “well done.”

Notes Miller: “Every time we put something into a bottle, we want to feel like we’ve earned that Bravo Zulu.”

Challenges: “The biggest challenge in this industry is distribution,” says Miller, before adding, “The biggest challenge in the State of Utah, in this industry, is the legislature and the way they manage the DABC [Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control].”

Opportunities: “Expanding into other markets,” says Miller. The distillery hopes to finalize negotiations with a distributor that offers “direct-to-consumer options in 30 states.” Holystone Distillery is already licensed to sell in California, with plans to enter the Oregon market as well.

Needs: “Distribution is the biggest hurdle,” says Miller. “If you can secure good distribution, it’s a lot easier to sell it. You can do TV commercials and billboards all you want to, but if it’s not in the liquor store for people to buy it, then it doesn’t matter.”