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Sean McQueen

Sean McQueen XXXXXXX

During a stop on the Kentucky bourbon tour a few years ago, Sean McQueen stood in the back of the crowd and choked down a sample of Maker's Mark, secretly wishing he had a soda to chase it with. 

He wasn't a sip-straight-whiskey kind of guy. 

"I was like, 'why would anyone drink this without a chaser'" he said. "It was a struggle."

Today, the 44-year-old Davenport resident would sip a 90-proof liquor on any casual afternoon, especially if you'd promise to buy the bottle afterward. 

For McQueen, one of the founding members of the LeClaire-based Mississippi River Distilling Co. team, liquor-loving has been an acquired taste. 

He quit his house-building job of 17 years to join the whiskey crew, calling it a chance for "the American dream."  

"I was super uneducated at first, I didn't know much about the booze business," he said. "So you gotta do your research." 

As the sales manager of the group, McQueen said being able to swig, and talk about, any type of alcohol is part of the job. 

"When I walk into a higher end cocktail bar in Chicago or New York and I'm trying to sell our rum over another one, I have to know what I'm talking about," he said. "You learn the vocabulary and develop your palette and you tell people about our story and why we're different." 

Over the years, he's surpassed surface knowledge and become the distillery's resident mixologist — that includes creating hundreds of cocktail recipes featuring rum, gin, bourbon and whiskey, which are all featured online. 

"The majority of the world doesn't want to drink their booze straight up," he said. "If we can show people some of the options, some of these craft cocktails, that will help them wrap their minds around us."

The products are available locally at bars and restaurants, and distributed to roughly 30 states. Daily distillery tours have become somewhat of a tourist attraction in LeClaire, with roughly 50,000 visitors per year. 

But there's a glaring problem to that money-making recipe. 

The state of Iowa restricts distilleries from selling samples or drinks by the glass, so Mississippi River Distilling Company can only offer one sample per person per day — and it has to be free. 

"We're constantly having to explain it to people, why they can't stay and hang out and enjoy a full-sized cocktail," McQueen said. "A lot of people don't get it, and we don't either." 

On the first Friday of every month, the distillery stays open late for tours, samples and appetizers. 

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Anywhere from 200 to 400 people roll through each Friday, said Ryan Burchett, co-founder of the distillery. 

"We give away a lot of free booze, because we're not allowed to charge people," he said. "On those nights and in the summer especially, people want to stick around and enjoy the real drinks — but they can't." 

That's why McQueen has become an expert in talking about the drink options. 

He'll ask you a series of questions — Do you like sweet or savory? Bourbon or gin? How old are you? Do you like salt? Chocolate or vanilla? — and come up with your perfect drink. 

"An old-fashioned cocktail is like mom's lasagna," he said. "Everybody does it differently, and everybody adds that special something." 

McQueen said the "grain to glass" mentality of Mississippi River Distilling Company's products result in a more oaky, harsher-grain taste, so he prefers spicing them up with simple syrups and herbs and fruits.

Now, with or without liquid courage, McQueen can confidently share what sets them apart. 

"Kentucky whiskey is great and has been well known for a long time," he said. "But we don't need to try to be like Kentucky or anywhere else; we want do our own thing."


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).