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John Granata: from Mastering Distillation to Leading the New Jersey Craft Distillers Guild

Photo for: John Granata: from Mastering Distillation to Leading the New Jersey Craft Distillers Guild

18/02/2024 Crafting Excellence in Spirits and Advocacy for the New Jersey Distilling Community.

John Granata, Co-Founder, Master Distiller, President, and Chairman at Jersey Spirits Distilling Co., and President and Founding Member of the New Jersey Craft Distillers Guild, brings decades of entrepreneurial expertise to the world of craft distillation. In this exclusive interview, we dive into the inspirations, challenges, and innovations that have shaped Jersey Spirits into an award-winning distillery and explore Granata's pivotal role in advocating for the craft distilling community in the Garden State.

John, as the President and Founding Member of the New Jersey Craft Distillers Guild, can you shed light on the challenges and successes of the craft distilling industry in New Jersey? How does the Guild advocate for the interests of its members?

New Jersey is one of the most challenging states to launch a craft alcohol beverage manufacturing business. The laws are pretty strict overall, but the challenges increase dramatically because of the retail and wholesale license structure the State has had in place for decades. There is a warped idea that when the laws were created for us we are viewed as competing for the same customers, which is not at all accurate. It has become a ripe environment for Lobbyists and Legislatures to constantly reduce and strike any gainful Bills we may get created. As the world changes, there is a constant desire in this State to keep everything a status quo which is never going to be helpful for the craft beverage industry. Our focus, primarily as a Guild, is to provide all craft distillers in the State one voice with our Legislature and Regulator. We educate our Legislative system at every opportunity we can obtain. The Guild wants to market our members more substantially but our focus currently is on just holding and gaining some ground for more robust privileges. The Guild has achieved some substantial successes and appreciates those, but there is so much ground to gain. We do not have parity even among our peers in the industry like wine and beer which is super frustrating for all of us. Our current mission is to get all of the active distilleries in New Jersey involved with the Guild just so we do not lose any ground we have gained. Non-members have to understand the value that they enjoy because of the Guild and its efforts since 2017. Unfortunately, there are too many influences much larger than us that actively seek to acquire a business advantage over others in the alcohol space so it’s a fight we are challenged with daily.

In 2022, you, along with Mark Elia, urged lawmakers for changes in liquor license reform, emphasizing the need for distilleries to offer food and mixed drinks on their premises. Could you provide an update on the progress in this regard, and how would these changes benefit craft distilleries in New Jersey?

After a very lengthy battle to get unanimous support for Bill S4265, it was finally signed by the Governor in early January of this year. This bill does provide us with the ability to sell de minimis snacks and allows coordination with restaurants and food trucks. We cannot establish a restaurant or kitchen ourselves. Ultimately, this is of such importance for distilleries. Since 2015, we have been told we could not have food trucks at our establishments or even put menus out for customers to order directly for delivery. This bill finally clarifies that we are not prohibited from allowing and even fostering a customer’s access to food. Once we get through regulation, we will see how we can effectively use the coordination provisions as an advantage to our businesses. Right now we have lifted the misguided rules and have proper allowance to set forth responsible customer interaction within the alcohol space.

We never advocated or had the liquor license reform mentioned as part of our Bill, that was put in by the Governor which effectively stalled the signing of our bill and delayed providing relief by over 6 crucial months. The reform part aside, there are other clarifications and privileges we are all very excited about. Some notable ones are that we are not required to provide a tour, it codifies us having TVs and showing events, unlimited events (public and private), allows our establishments to charge a cover charge for patrons to access live music events and other events, provide certain discount programs and engage in off-premise events. There is more and we are all eager to integrate them into our business models. Overall these privileges are a dramatic and responsible move in the right direction and quite frankly should never have been restricted in the first place.

The New Jersey Craft Distillers Guild has been actively engaging with legislators to support legislation that benefits craft distilleries, including the removal of out-of-state delivery prohibition and easing tour requirements. How can enthusiasts and consumers contribute to supporting these legislative efforts?

The good news is that tours are no longer required. We are not saying there won’t be any more tours at distilleries since we all see value in them. We, as owners, don’t have to worry about what will happen if we are short-staffed and can’t conduct a tour. It takes a big burden off and allows us to approach it in a more businesslike manner. 

The out-of-state delivery prohibition is bogus and has to be removed. We have been working diligently on getting removal to happen. We have come close a few times but lost it in the last seconds. There is no way removing this prohibition would create a discrimination case since it would place the burden on the receiving state. Since nothing would be coming into New Jersey or even being delivered within New Jersey then no one could challenge New Jersey to ship products into this state. Products would only be going out and not in or within the state. That is a ridiculous argument to rely upon. 

The world is changing and we need to change with it. Direct-to-consumer will happen soon and we should be preparing for it and allowing our craft manufacturers to access those out-of-state customers they cannot currently reach. We can reach in-state customers, so keeping in-state delivery prohibited is fine and that will curtail any discrimination cases. Prohibiting us from delivering out of state does absolutely zero for such cases. We will get a Bill rolling on this in the new Legislative session. Enthusiasts and consumers should contact their local representatives and tell them to let craft distilleries deliver out of state. Text Governor Murphy too!

Looking ahead to the Spirits Board Panel to be held at IBWSS on July 24th, 2024, what insights can attendees expect from your perspective as a seasoned entrepreneur and industry expert?

I think we bring a unique perspective regarding the challenges of opening, running, and maintaining a distillery in one of the most challenging states. We do all the heavy lifting and mash, ferment, and distill every product on site. We are well-versed in every phase of our production and processes. We are not an enormous operation but we are not tiny either. We distribute and have our product in every county in the state against all of its borders and we continue to self-distribute. We also went through Covid in one of the most restricted areas in the United States. We continue to deal with both Covid and the aftermath of such severe shutdowns and restrictions. We additionally developed some very unique products and created our proprietary processes to flavor as purely as possible. That is where our perspective shines because our mission puts us in a realm that not many producers are practicing or perfecting. There are not a whole lot of distilleries making a horseradish-flavored vodka with real horseradish supplied by an in-state farm. Like we tell our customers, we have a craft distilling license and we are not afraid to use it!

With your background in Media, TV, and Film, how do storytelling and visual communication influence your approach to brand development at Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.?

Media is more a part of marketing than ever before. People now engage with all forms of media on such a vast amount of platforms that it is literally mind-boggling. They are plugged in at home, on the go, in the car and the list goes on and on. We now have access to large audiences that a decade or so ago would have been so cost-prohibitive to most craft manufacturers. There is unprecedented accessibility, at a relatively low cost, which permits the integration of large amounts of media elements on a variety of channels that drive all our brands to more and more consumers. Even word of mouth has dramatically changed because customers become mini marketing and broadcasting agencies that tout your business when they have a positive experience. They create their own media and push your brand to untapped audiences every day and that is a huge benefit that gets better and bigger every day. We want them to become part of the story and that engages them at new levels.

Image Source (Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.): Jersey Spirits Distilling Company was featured in the Pilot episode of The First Family of Hip Hop on Bravo TV 

As Co-Founder and Master Distiller at Jersey Spirits Distilling Co., can you share the inspiration behind starting the distillery and your vision for crafting distinctive, small-batch spirits?

Once we realized that distilling beverage alcohol could be legal and achievable in our home state we immediately started working toward that end. Our philosophy was to make everything from scratch rather than sourcing. There is nothing wrong with sourcing but they are very different products when you mash, ferment, and distill everything on your own. Let me be clear that it is much harder and costlier to go the route the way we did but to us, it was a much more rewarding path. We get to steer exactly what goes into our products. We intended to make everything as pure as possible with very high-quality ingredients. We developed relationships with dozens of farms and orchards and selected only the best grains, fruits, produce, botanicals, and spices we possibly could. We are staunchly against the use of any chemical natural flavorings that were synthesized from plants. Our mission was to extract our flavors from the respective produce. We developed our own processes and that is exactly what we did. Even the ability to develop whiskey profiles and expressions that are not off-the-shelf products and are available to the masses is very exciting to us. We just love to experiment and develop spirits that challenge us to be unique and different. Anyone can source a bourbon product with just a phone call and a little money. They can design a nice label and sell it. The experience is a world of difference when you truly handcraft every drop that is inside that bottle.

Can you share some highlights of the barrel share program at Jersey Spirits, and how it connects consumers with the distillation process?

Our Barrel Share program is great for novices getting their feet wet in the whiskey space as well as seasoned veterans wanting a deeper dive. It was inspired by our own journey in learning and developing our processes. There is a great deal of folklore, marketing, myths, and mystery in how spirits are made and that can be very exciting. We found that getting people closer to how things develop in the barrel over time it spends there builds a richer appreciation for an aged product they can identify with on a whole new level. Every part of the process is important to the end product and it’s not just a story. Participants get a better understanding of the chemistry that is driving the spirits that start as simple grains being transformed into alcohol and how those spirits are separated through distillation to their completion within the barrel. This realization through a sampling of those transformations over time helps participants connect the dots in what is really driving the processes.

Image: Barrel Share program at Jersey Spirits Distilling Company

Lastly, with the bill allowing distilleries to participate in seasonal farmers' markets, how do you envision this benefiting not only Jersey Spirits but also the overall New Jersey distilling community?

The bill to obtain sales at Farmers Markets was a huge and exciting win for the Guild and it could not have come at a better time. I do think this helped save several distilleries and breweries in our state. It allows us to travel to every nook and cranny of the State and get exposure to customers. It also perpetuates awareness that there is legal distillation being performed in our State. We know firsthand that after engaging with us, customers shared they found distilleries nearer to them and even visited. Growth of our industry and awareness are top takeaways.

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Conclusion:

As we raise our glasses to the spirited conversation with John Granata, it's evident that Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. isn't just crafting exceptional spirits; they're weaving a narrative of New Jersey's rich heritage. Granata's insights into the challenges faced by the craft distilling industry and the ongoing efforts to reform regulations offer a glimpse into the passionate drive behind the scenes. The future, as hinted at by upcoming releases and legislative progress, promises even more exciting chapters for Jersey Spirits and the broader craft distilling community in the Garden State. Cheers to the indomitable spirit of craftsmanship!

In conversation with Malvika Patel, Editor and VP, Beverage Trade Network

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