Most know the story of David and Goliath — when an underdog goes against a larger adversary, it's the little guy who defies odds and comes out on top. The tale is one that Daniel Fort and his father Garth initially carried with them as they launched Defiance Whiskey. How do you create a new bourbon when juggernauts like Jack Daniels and Makers Mark stand tall?
The name "Defiance" said everything about the Forts' goals. When they started crafting the whiskey four years ago, they wanted it to embody a can-do attitude and passion. They weren't going to be cowed by the big brands' market share. They had a different vision.
“We don’t want to be just another Southern-branded, the-Civil-War-could-have-gone-either-way kind of whiskey,” Daniel says.
The result was a barrel-aged, high-rye bourbon whiskey blended with complexity and spice. Rye-based spirits have been gaining popularity recently. Since bourbon is primarily composed of corn, adding large quantities of rye gives the drink an exceptional fruitiness and spice. The Forts believe it makes Defiance mixable, spicy and above all, approachable.
“We don’t want to take customers from other whiskey people," Daniel says. "We want to introduce bourbon to a wider audience. So we tried to come up with this flavor profile that’s complex, a little on the sweet side, got wonderful notes of rye, and a really smooth finish.”
Though the Forts don't want to disclose how much whiskey they're currently producing, production has been steadily growing since their first batch in Feb. 2013. That batch was bottled for sale last fall after aging about 18 months.
The pair's distribution company, Defiant Spirits LLC, is primarily a two-man operation. Daniel's initial idea and business management guide the company, while Garth's chemical engineering background makes him key in composing the spirit. While Garth is retired, 40-year-old Daniel also works full-time as an attorney in St. Louis — he sees the two jobs not as stressful, but as a way to lead a fulfilling life.
To make their whiskey a reality, the Forts reached out to various experts. One was Greg Metze, master distiller of Midwest Grain Products in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
Midwest Grain Products works with more than 100 alcoholic brands, most notably Diageo, the world's largest producer of beer and wine. On the distillery side, Metze actually has a hand in crafting the majority of rye whiskies across the nation. But the company doesn't produce any house brands — it just sells products to bottling agencies. This gives Metze and company more time to focus on getting whiskey companies off the ground.
This partnership with Midwest Grains changed everything for the Forts. Not only did they have a seasoned partner to help them polish Defiance, but they had a place to distill their whiskey.
While the distillery's location means the whiskey is produced in Indiana, Defiance is still very much a Missouri product. Distribution is headquartered in Clayton, they have a bottling partner in Ste. Genevieve and distilling barrels are sourced throughout the state. For whiskey to qualify as bourbon, it must be aged in charred oak barrels — which are frequently produced in this state.
“Missouri happens to be one of the best barrel-making places in the world, with our white oaks," Garth said. "And to make really good bourbon, you have to do it right at every single step.”
When the Forts wanted to take their whiskey a step further, they approached Gamlin Whiskey House with a few working varieties for a critique. The whiskey experts offered feedback through a blind taste test that pitted Defiance against name brand concoctions. The collaboration narrowed three varieties of Defiance down to one.
Gamlin even bought the first bottle.
“Defiance is done the right way," said Derek Gamlin, proprietor of Gamlin Restaurant Group. "A lot of people right now are trying to create the next hottest whiskey or bourbon, and they’re really trying their hardest, but they rush it sometimes. I think [Defiance] really took their time to make it right."
The friendship with Gamlin led to an organized tasting held at the restaurant for its "Women Who Whiskey" event in early February. The food-and-whiskey pairing honored Daniel Fort's aunt Cornelia, a WWII pilot he says inspired him and the mentality behind Defiance.
While Defiance Whiskey is the Forts' first endeavor, it is actually one of many projects the father-and-son team hope to launch through Defiant Spirits LLC. They want the organization to act as more of a branding development company than whiskey distributor.
“The idea is that we can build a machine," Daniel Fort says, "a company and a network that we can leverage for other things. But we haven’t found one yet that really has legs.”
Defiance is currently only sold in Missouri through outlets like Schnucks and Randall's, with bottles ranging from $27 to $29. Yet it may not stay localized for much longer — the whiskey just won a silver medal at the American Craft Spirits 2015 event in Austin, Texas. Defiant Spirits LLC has also been nominated for this year's FedEx Small Business Grant competition.
Only time will tell where other projects take the company. But at the end of the day, The Forts feel they have already come out on top.
“We decided we wanted to build a better whiskey, and we did," Daniel says. "There’s a lot of good whiskey out in the world, but we wanted to do ours. And that in spite of the odds, we can. And that’s why we’re Defiance.”