featured-food-and-wineIssue 14Uncategorized

Do Good Distillery

Photos Just So - Contentment Health-4269BY DANA KOSTER

With his scraggly beard, curling moustache and aquiline nose, Jim Harrelson looks the part of a whisky distiller. Tall and lanky, he’s calm even as he speaks with that specific kind of frenetic energy born of passion – about his decade of home brewing beer, about the “sea salt-forward” flavor of a really good Scotch. And, of course, about his family, who stand beside him in this unassuming warehouse on the outskirts of Modesto, decked out in matching Do Good Distillery t-shirts despite the November cold.

Jim is more subdued when he talks about Paul Katuszonek. He tells me he first met Paul on the job – Paul had a rough time at the Police Academy, and Jim, who worked at the Sheriff’s office, gave him the leg-up he needed to become an officer. “He was the only trainee I ever had to stick my neck out for. I helped him get hired with Oakdale and we became friends. I introduced him to his wife, he introduced me to good bourbon and cigars.”

Together, the pair dreamed of opening a distillery of their own, a family affair that would include their wives, Liz Harrelson and Shannon Katuszonek, as well as Jenna Woods and her husband Ryan Woods. Jenna, Liz and Shannon were already first cousins, and their husbands, this discerning group of men brought together by marriage and a shared love of fine whisky, talked often about their distillery dreams.

They had a good basis for it, too – Jim had already been making his own beer for more than a decade. “I put thousands of dollars into my home brewing equipment, just geeked out,” he says. “And making whisky – like 80% of that is knowing how to make a good beer. It’s really the same process.”

His wife, Liz, adds that Jim was so dedicated to home brewing that he personally made all the beer for their wedding. Liz is tall, in her 30’s, with shoulder-length brown hair and a crackling, dry sense of humor. “We talk about brewing so much at home that our four-year-old could probably tell you about 70% of it. I talked to her teachers and said – you know, we talk a lot about rum and whisky at home, she understands it’s for adults only.”

It’s easy to look at Do Good Distillery the way it is now – filled with gorgeous charred oak barrels, giant Steampunk-esque copper stills and the sweet smell of fermenting grain – and think that this family’s dream has become a reality. And in a way, it has. But not without a price.

Ryan Woods has a boyish face, but it takes on a somber cast when he tells the story. “About two years ago, Paul was killed in a car accident,” he says. He speaks quickly, eager to get past the details of the tragedy and onto what has come afterwards: this warehouse, the physical manifestation of Paul’s vision. “After, we wanted to bring the family together instead of letting it get torn apart by the accident. And we were fortunate enough to get this place up and running, because it’s really about building up Paul’s legacy.”

Indeed, almost everything in Do Good Distillery bears some homage to Paul. “The top of every bottle has his face,” Ryan says. “Everything we do is basically centered around Paul, centered around the family. On the box, we have his initials: PRK, Paul Roman Katuszonek. Even the fill date – that was Paul’s birthday. It was also the day that we actually filed our company.”

In a room where the walls are covered with boards salvaged from old barrels, Jim talks about Do Good Distillery’s plans for the future. This space we’re standing in, with its glossily-polished wooden tables and leather arm chairs, will soon be a tasting room where visitors can sample the first two products to come off the line: a spicy, vaguely sweet white rum and a gin that brewer Dano Brocchini – the only non-relative of the Do Good team – believes will have a tantalizing, almost pink color.

A big man with curly hair, a curly beard and a hearty, easy laugh, Dano walks the floors of the warehouse in a kilt and tennis shoes. From a distance, he looks like someone you’d see wielding a broadsword on an ancient battlefield, but up close, his black-framed glasses and T.A.R.D.I.S. tattoo make it apparent that he’s a proper geek, a fact he readily admits to. “I’m a big nerd,” he says, punctuating the end of his sentence with an explosive chuckle. “And I’ve been brewing for 11 years. That’s how I know Jim, from our old homebrew club. I’m the only non-family member here.”

Jenna, a petite blonde with a shrewd business sense, stops him right there. “Family’s tied by love, not blood.”

The name Do Good Distillery comes from the famous Ben Franklin quote “you do well by doing good.” Jim, who describes himself as a “Ben Franklin fan,” was burned out from doing a job where he saw the worst of everyone around him. “I was tired of dealing with angry people who wanted to kill me.”

The distillery was a way out, a way to give up the stress of being a cop and to live a life centered more on goodwill. “We want to do good things in life. If we can support a local charity or some other nonprofit, do good things with our money, we want that.”

As a first order of do-goodery, the team has adopted a distillery cat from local no-kill shelter Wags and Whiskers. They’ve affectionately named her Kassie after Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing. And next year, in honor of Paul’s service as a police officer, Do Good plans to put out a bourbon that they’ll tie in to an Officer Down charity.

Some of the titular good-doing comes from Do Good’s commitment to the brewing and distilling community. “At some point next year, we’ll actually have classes here for distilling,” Ryan says. “The brand we use for our distills is going to use our facilities for classes, so people will come in and actually learn how to use the equipment.”

“There are very few things we keep secret,” adds Jim. “It is competition, in a way, but I’d rather know who that competition is. I’d rather work with them and make sure that they produce good spirits. With or without us, they’re going to get into it, so we might as well be part of that. There’s so much room in this market still.”

The guys are almost giddy when they smell the sweet, apple scent wafting from a fermenter or stick a long, thin copper tool called a “whisky thief” into a barrel to give me a test sample. And really, they have reason to be. As things stand now, Do Good is poised to become the biggest distillery in California and the second-biggest on the West Coast. In the coming two years, the team plans to produce white rum, gin, rye bourbon, wheat bourbon and single malt whisky – and part of that distilling process involves tasting the product.

Despite how it might sound, though, Ryan assures me that distilling is not all glamorous work. There’s no air conditioning in the warehouse, for starters. And the basis for all of their products is sugar water, so the potential for mess is high.

During one major mishap, 1,800 pounds of grain and a thousand gallons of water got stuck in the large still. “We were able to get it out,” Jim says. “But we had to open it up and just… let it go.” The resulting mush of water and grain filled the floor of the warehouse and it took the team a full three days to clean it up.

Even in these, the worst moments, it’s clear that the work at Do Good Distillery is a labor of love. “I was just like: well, guess we gotta clean it up,” Dano says with a shrug. “‘Cause you know, the worst day here is better than the best day at any other job that I had before. We’re just livin’ the dream.”


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