MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Lee Phillips, 36, is a third-generation moonshiner – but the first in his family to go legit.
He is opening Cape May Distillery this summer on Route 47 in Green Creek, where he is making 180-proof rum and developing honeyed mead.
As a child, Phillips’ grandmother used to shuck corn for mash for her father’s still in Kentucky. And his grandfather ran his own still there, too, a fact Phillips only learned during a visit years ago.
His business came about during a moment of insight into the potential of craft distilleries.
“I was staying at my roommate’s house during the week when I was in law school, sleeping on the floor. After class one day I asked him, ‘How about opening a distillery?’” he said in a Rutgers School of Law T-shirt and shorts.
Phillips grew up in Brick Township, Ocean County, before joining the Marines and finishing college with a master’s in psychology. He did not relish the idea of a career spent in a suit and tie. His old college roommate, Nathan Dolezel, immediately signed on.
A week later, he filed for a business tax number and dropped out of Rutgers. His grandmother co-signed a $25,000 loan, and his business was off and running.
“My parents weren’t disappointed. They weren’t happy, either, that I spent all that money on schooling,” he said.
But the quick move proved serendipitous.
Phillips got in before a craft-distillery boom that has caused national backlogs in permitting, he said. He received his licenses in April.
Serendipity also provided two new business partners after one, Joe Lerro, walked in off the street to ask about his new Cape May Distillery sign, and another, Jay Sporl, called from his car in North Carolina after learning about the new business from a friend in Cape May.
“I was driving in North Carolina, and a campground friend called and said the Cape May Distillery was looking for partners. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Sporl said.
Sporl, who recently sold his family campground in Lower Township, called Phillips and negotiated terms over the phone.
Both are retirees from Lower Township and will handle the tourism, advertising and tax details.
“My skills end at the alcohol,” Phillips said.
But it’s a skill that has taken some time to develop. Phillips has traveled the country visiting distilleries and taking courses.
Making bourbon starts with just-germinated corn to draw out the sugars and enzymes. Then it’s dry-kilned to stop the germination, ground into flour and mixed with water filtered to remove metals, especially iron, that can affect the taste.
Fermentation takes about three weeks. The mixture is poured into a computerized distillery that cooks the mixture to between 180 and 198 degrees. Methanol is removed, and what remains is called “the hearts.”
Phillips makes rum from sugar cane that he stores and ages in white-oak barrels. Phillips said every new product has to be perfect.
“I’ll start over and delay it a year if I have to,” he said.
The high-tech distillery helps with automation, but Phillips learned on a copper kettle still that he still keeps in the warehouse.
“I’m an old-fashioned guy. I’d rather use the old-fashioned equipment, but it’s not practical,” he said.
Nationwide, craft distilleries have taken off — from just two dozen in 2000 to more than 580 today, according to trade groups.
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The Lazy Eye Distillery was the first to open in Atlantic County and in June will open a second distillery on Spicer Avenue in Wildwood. It will be the first distillery to open to the public in Cape May County.
“It’s exciting. But it’s not an easy undertaking,” said owner Carol Kafkalas, of Northfield.
Phillips and his partners hope to add their distillery to Cape May County’s winery and craft-brewery bus tours.
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“We’re not tour-ready, as you can see,” he said as walked around his cluttered warehouse that will become a visitor center for tourists.
Phillips said he would like to perfect small-batch gin.
“You go to any liquor store, and there are rows of vodkas. Same with rums. But gin is on two shelves,” he said. “I want to bring gin back to the younger generations.”
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