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Why Krista Haley traded lawyering to open New Jersey’s first distillery since Prohibition (Plus, how to make a real Dark & Stormy)

When Krista Haley, an Ivy League alum and attorney, met her friend, Brant Braue, at a Fairfield, New Jersey brewery, he was dreaming of opening a distillery and she wanted a new challenge.

“We both kept thinking about it and I was really tired of divorce and custody battles…everybody at the ugliest times of their lives. I felt myself getting miserable,” she says.

There had not been a distillery in New Jersey since Prohibition, and Haley decided see whether no one had really tried or if they had and were shot down. It turned out it was the former, and Haley and Braue went “eyes closed, feet first” into the distilling business. Three years after the initial idea came about, Jersey Artisan Distilling opened its doors in January. Haley’s got big plans for it, too. Though their products are currently distributed only in New Jersey, in three years JAD plans to cover the East Coast and in five, the whole country.

I spoke with Haley about the trials (no pun intended) and joys of being an entrepreneur, how she likes her rum, and how she’s using her lawyering skills to kick ass at the booze business.

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Jersey Artisan Distilling owner Krista Haley with her business partner, Brant Braue

KK: It’s hard to make the leap from steady paycheck to not knowing what’s next. Walk us through your decision to quit your stable and lucrative career to be an entrepreneur. 

KH: I really enjoy being a lawyer. I like the courtroom and putting on that show and arguing and all of that, but I need a new challenge fairly regularly. I found that I got really good at what I was doing. It was not only draining because dealing with everyone’s crying and houses breaking up…but I found myself it wasn’t a challenge anymore. It’s scary as hell but I’d worked for myself in the last four years which has its own challenges and benefits. I liked the lawyering part of it but I didn’t like to chase after clients to pay me and that sort of thing. When the opportunity to open the distillery presented itself, I thought it could be once in a lifetime. I didn’t want to kick myself later.

KK: What kind of character traits do you think are required to be a distiller? There must be some synergy there in your past life, too.

KH: I think you need to have a good mix of bravery and a little bit of craziness. It’s still a fairly unproven industry. You have to have a lot of self-guidance and be willing to learn and there’s not anyone you can learn it from.

KK: Starting a business partnership is tough also. How do you and Brant split up your duties and get along?

KH: He distills, and I do everything else – the regulatory stuff, marketing, social media, vendors, taxes. Often people mistake me for a sales rep, rather than owner, because I am a woman. Brant is the chemist, and I prefer to leave that to him, though I can distill in a pinch. Brant and I fight like an old married couple, but we’re not. We work well together but we’d kill each other if we had to go home together (laughs).

KK: Your first product is the Busted Barrel Silver Rum, and in October you’ll be launched an aged rum. Why did you start with making rum?

KH: We started with rum in part because Brant thought it would be the easiest of the liquors to make. And I’m a big rum fan and so is he.

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KK: What challenges have you faced so far?

KH: It’s hard to get people to wrap their head around a rum that is clear but isn’t harsh. That’s what makes us very different from Bacardi. We want people to realize that rum can be appreciated like a whiskey or a bourbon. I had a hard time with it too when I first started drinking rum. I like to drink rum on the rocks, and we want people to enjoy what they’re drinking rather than to drink for the sake of getting drunk.

KK: How would you describe your rum, and what are you up to next?

KH: It has a lot of caramel and butterscotch notes, but a good amount of the oak and smoky flavor. There’s some vanilla. It’s not terribly sweet drink, because we use a medium molasses. It’s relatively dry in terms of rum. Next spring, we’re planning to make vodka and gin, with a bourbon to release in 2016.

KK: It must be hard to make the whiskey and then watch it sit in a barrel for that long.

KH: there is a temptation to stick a straw in the barrels and start drinking. But that’d be a really short day so we don’t.

KK: How have your drinking habits changed since you starting working in the booze business?

KH: I never thought about tasting notes. I thought that was a wine thing. As  I’ve gotten a lot more adventurous. I will try things I’ve never heard of and I want to support the craft distillers as much as possible. I used to be primarily a beer drinker. I also really like drinking our silver rum but I was never a silver rum person before. Mix that with ginger beer, and it’s delicious, which is another new discovery in my world. I like simple drinks a lot more than super complicated ones. There are so many recipes that call for 87 ingredients and you don’t actually know what you’re drinking.

KK: What’s your best drinking advice?

KH: Try everything because you’ll never know what you like. Sometimes it’s the memories that hold people back, like someone had a bad tequila experience in college but it’s a crappy jug. It’s a lot different than the $75 bottle of tequila you can sip on the rocks. If you don’t want to learn, there’s plenty of mediocre alcohol out there for you.

Information about Jersey Artisan Distilling’s public bottling and launch events can be found here. Currently, because of New Jersey law that hasn’t been changed since the Noble Experiment, members of the public can’t receive tastings or tours at the distillery…yet.

Make a Dark & Stormy

One of Krista’s favorite drinks is the combination of rum and ginger beer – the beginnings of a classic cocktail called the Dark & Stormy. The original concoction is made with blackstrap (the darkest and sweetest rum), rather than silver rum, but you can sub out for your favorite kill devil (a nickname for rum by the English colonists) as you wish. In the Booze for Babes book, I teach you how to make ginger beer from scratch too, but brands like Fentimans, Barritts and Reed’s are great too. Here’s how to do it:

2 ounces dark rum

1/5 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon of brown simple syrup (2 parts brown sugar to one part water)

4 ounces of distilled or filtered water (can be hot or cold) Orange wheel

Cinnamon stick

Mix the lime juice and brown simple syrup. Add the water and rum. Garnish with the orange wheel and cinnamon stick.

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