Diane Mastrull: Homemade gin, without the bathtub

Posted: July 02, 2013

Editor's Note: This column is sponsored by TD Bank. The opinions and analysis expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TD Bank, N.A. or its affiliates.

Talk about mother-in-law problems.

Joe Maiellano, proud graduate of Northeast High School and the University of Pennsylvania, is finding himself on an entrepreneurial high.

The kit to make homemade gin that he and wife Sarah (Kapenstein when she was at Northeast High) have gone into business making with another couple has had a debut worth toasting.

They assembled 250 kits in the Maiellanos' kitchen in Arlington, Va., in November, hoping they would manage to sell them through their website, www.homemadeginkit.com, by Father's Day. They sold nearly 3,000 by the end of December, and another 3,000 or more since then.

They picked up television coverage in Washington and favorable reviews from the cocktail writer for the New York Times that, Maiellano said, "was a heck of a validation for me." Their kit comes up in top positions on Google searches for "homemade gin." And national chains are talking about carrying the kits in actual brick-and-mortar stores.

Yet, there in the Rhawnhurst twin where she raised her daughter Sarah, Bonnie Kapenstein one recent morning made this stunning admission:

"I haven't even bought a kit."

Maiellano, in town for a visit, just smiled politely at the other end of the dining room table as his mother-in-law defended her lack of drinking support for the fledgling business that is currently a side job for all involved.

"I like plum wine with a screwtop," Kapenstein said. "My palate is the sweet stuff. I'm sure I wouldn't like gin."

Then again, with the company profitable and demand so high that production of the HomeMade Gin Kit has been moved out of the Maiellano kitchen to a professional direct-mail production and fulfillment facility in Dulles, Va., Bonnie Kapenstein's $49.95 really isn't necessary.

"This year, based on our projections, we are hoping that we can hit half a million in revenue," said Jack Hubbard who, with his wife, Molly, complete the foursome that is the HomeMade Gin Kit L.L.C. "We thought if we sold $10,000 worth of kits we were going to be hot shots."

Hubbard, 28, is a fund-raising consultant; his wife is a stay-at-home mother to their 10-month-old daughter. Joe Maiellano, 28, is director of development for the Armed Forces Foundation; Sarah, 27, works in government affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

How this concoction of friends became a small business started over drinks, naturally.

Joe Maiellano, an avid cook and cocktail-maker who has been creating his own bitters and simple syrups for some time, was serving up homemade gin and tonics to Jack Hubbard.

"Jack said, 'These gin and tonics are really good. We ought to open a distillery,' " Maiellano recalled.

The next day, after concluding that it hadn't just been the alcohol talking, they decided to explore what that would entail - and quickly discovered it would involve way more in money and time than they had.

"We more or less realized it would take one to three years and over $100,000 before we got a bottle on the shelf," Maiellano said.

A lot of that would involve a tedious regulatory process, from federal oversight agencies to local zoning boards.

"We were a little disappointed," Maiellano said. And then Jack Hubbard wondered why, with Maiellano's personal gin-making acumen, they couldn't come up with a way to sell the recipe.

To the kitchen they went, testing a dozen combinations before finding the blend of spices, botanicals, and flowers that is included in their kit, along with a tin of juniper berries, two Italian glass bottles, a double-mesh fine strainer and a funnel.

The buyer need only provide the booze, which Maiellano recommends be an unflavored vodka in the $15-to-$20-a-bottle range. The process of infusing the vodka with the dry ingredients and berries over 36 hours creates gin - and a more entertaining gift than a bottle with a ribbon on it, say the kit's creators.

One kit yields 750 milliliters of liquid – or about 17 shots - that is amber in color. It is a compound gin because the don't-try-this-at-home final, and dangerous, distillation process that strips out color is lacking.

They foresee only growth, figuring they are at the start of a craft liquors movement that has the promise of the current microbrew beer craze.

Until more private distilleries start producing options on the gin front, such as Bluecoat, made by Philadelphia Distilling L.L.C., Hubbard said he and his partners figured: "Why not give people the tools to make it themselves?"

Among those who think they are on a fruitful track is Raj Bhakta, a former Philadelphian, political candidate who unsuccessfully ran against U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz in 2006, and fired contestant from NBC's The Apprentice. He is now making WhistlePig small-batch rye whiskey in Vermont.

"Gin and vodka are ready to drink pretty quickly after distillation, so Joe is spot on the mark," Bhakta said of the man who worked on his political campaign. "But if he has really patient customers, he could offer rye, and maybe we'll work together on that."


Diane Mastrull: >Inquirer.com

Joe Maiellano talks about how his HomeMade Gin Kit is a whole alcohol experience, and not just a gift of a bottle of booze.

www.inquirer.com/gin


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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