Bone Spirits, located in Smithville, relies on a bare bones approach to distill locally grown corn and capture its essential, pure flavor in a bottle.
“When Jeff Peace, the owner, founded Bone Spirits, his goal was—and is—using local ingredients to produce high-quality spirits from scratch,” said Joe Alecci, who is the general manager and primary distiller. “Controlling production from ‘farm to bottle’ ensures our brands are the highest quality and truly unique.”
Peace, who grew up in Texas, served as legal counsel at Sidney Frank Importing Co., an international spirits distributor that, among other things, brought Jagermeister and Grey Goose Vodka to the United States. During his corporate career, flavored vodkas rose to prominence in the marketplace. Peace craved purity and simplicity.
When Peace left the corporate world and relocated to Austin, he saw an opportunity to stake a claim in the state’s then fledgling craft distillery market. In 2010, he launched Bone Spirits with Alecci helming day-to-day operations.
“We believe if you start with exceptional, hand-crafted spirits that are a true expression of the distillery then there is no need for ‘fluff’ such as flavors and additives,” Alecci said. “For instance, our spirits have a smooth ‘creamy’ mouth feel because of our distillation process not the addition of glycerin.”
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The World Comes to Smithville
Locating Bone Spirits in Smithville was a happenstance that began in the Virgin Islands via Montana. Alecci, who was reared in Seattle, met his wife, Kelly, as they attended college at the University of Montana in Missoula. Her parents had divorced, with her mother living in Montana and her father residing on St. Croix.
After graduation, the couple married and worked around the world including stints in Asia, Central and South America. In 2004, they moved to St. Croix to be near family. Alecci, who was an environmental consultant, began working on a long-term project studying the environmental impacts of waste from the local rum distilleries, which was piped directly onto the coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.
The initial work was field studies, but in order to create a control for long-term studies and testing, the environmental firm had to produce rum so it could have a supply of waste with known properties.
“To make rum waste, you have to make rum, so I became a rum-making environmental consultant,” Alecci said.
It was cost prohibitive to build a facility in the islands. The environmental firm’s co-owners were native Texans. One lived in La Grange while the other lived in Austin. Smithville split the distance. They built their production facility there. As a result, Alecci and his family found themselves relocating from St. Croix to Red Rock, an unincorporated community 12 miles southwest of Bastrop where the population hovers at somewhat less than 150.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to moving to Texas because our only experience with the state was the negative stereotypes floating around out there—and there are a lot of them,” Alecci said. “Then we got here, and the people blew us away. Yes, we had some culture shock, but I’ve never encountered such friendly, welcoming, genuine people in my life.”
Just as Alecci was becoming comfortable saying “y’all,” the environmental firm got official word that the long-term project had been cancelled.
“We had just moved across the world for a job that didn’t exist,” Alecci said.
About the same time, Peace moved from Chicago to Austin and began searching for a facility that could house his craft distillery. He was scrolling through commercial real estate ads on the Internet where the off the beaten path metal building that was outfitted with the stainless steel basics for distilling caught his eye. The infrastructure and the facility’s proximity to Texas’s major metro areas and his new hometown sealed the deal for Peace.
“I was already in place and had first-hand knowledge of the facility,” Alecci said. “By choice or by default, I became the distiller.”
Together, Peace and Alecci upgraded the infrastructure to handle commercial production.
“In the beginning, we just made it from scratch, put it in a bottle and hoped for the best,” Alecci said laughing at his relative lack of experience.
A Hands-on Process
At Bone Spirits making it from scratch means all products start with corn grown in Bastrop, Fayette or Gonzales counties. (The bourbon also contains rye “imported” from Hennessey, Oklahoma, the closest bulk source of the cold-weather grain.)
“Local corn, local water and local ingredients give our spirits the taste of this place,” Alecci said. “Well, that and the personality we infuse through our hands-on, personal touches.”
At Bone Spirits, hands-on means hands-on. All products are hand-labeled. Alecci’s children, ages 10 and 12, gather the Ashe juniper (better known as cedar) berries from the trees in the family’s front yard. Family and friends armed with Microplane® graters gather periodically for “Zest Fest,” an intensive two-day session where the team zests 1,200 pounds of Texas-grown citrus to flavor the company’s Moody June Gin.
The formula for Moody June Gin, one of the company’s best-sellers, is based on the distillery team’s personal preferences. They bought a variety of gins they like, tasted them, noted the attractive characteristics, identified (if possible) the botanicals used and then set out to create a version that hit the right flavor notes. They made five versions at a time in one-gallon batches until they hit upon a recipe they all liked. The one they liked was very citrusy; hence, today’s need for Zest Fest. At the time, they agreed the strong citrus influence would set the product apart in the marketplace.
“The terrifying moment came when we scaled the one-gallon batch up by a thousand,” Alecci said. “It was a big financial bet. Fortunately, it paid off, but trial-and-error recipe development has no guarantees.”
In the spirits industry, nothing has a 100 percent consumer-acceptance guarantee.
“Our products are such a reflection of who we are that initially I took people’s reactions to them personally as well,” Alecci said. “Let’s face it; they’re my babies.”
These days, though, his reaction is tempered by reality.
“Different people have different palates,” Alecci said. “I’m proud of the products we make and the way we make them. They deserve to be poured and tasted alongside premium spirits everywhere.”
Try It Yourself
The tasting room, located inside the distillery, is open every day except Sunday. Walk-ins are welcome, and tours are available.
802 NE 1st Street
Smithville, TX 78957