Following a free tour and tasting of whiskey last week, a group of first-time visitors to Mississippi River Distilling Co., LeClaire, left a few dollars as a tip.
That’s when Garrett Burchett, who founded the micro-distillery with his brother Ryan, had to chase them down. He handed the money back.
“Legally, you can’t leave us a tip,” he said, as he has explained hundreds of times before.
Legally, there’s a list of things the distillery hasn’t been able to do since it opened in 2010: Charge for hourly tours and samples, offer cocktails by the glass or sell more than two bottles of liquor per day to a customer.
A new law goes into effect Saturday allowing Mississippi River Distilling Co. to sell its alcohol by the glass, marking the end of the Burchetts’ five-year effort to get Iowa lawmakers to update regulations based on prohibition.
Wasting no time, their new on-site bar — Cody Road Cocktail House — opens Saturday to the public, making the LeClaire distillery the first in the state to be licensed to sell cocktails.
“It’s like the business is starting over,” Ryan Burchett said. “We’re changing everything we do in a way.”
When the law was officially signed in May, the Burchett brothers were relieved.
“Until it’s done and signed, you’re still kind of nervous,” Garrett Burchett said. “For us, it was kind of a celebration, like, ‘Hey, this chapter is over.’”
Their next reaction?
“Oh boy, we have a lot of work to do,” Ryan Burchett said. “We were working on the law for five years but didn’t plan too far in advance for it to actually happen.”
The owners, who also are the business’ primary distillers, had less than 60 days to renovate the front house and tasting room, then outfitted with retail space, a bar that was mostly for looks and high-top tables.
The remodel marks a change in focus, said Ryan Burchett: “We were driving people to do tours and not get too comfortable. Now, we want them to get comfortable and make it a regular stop.”
Cody Road Cocktail House, with a capacity of about 100 people, features wooden chairs and tables and an outdoor patio overlooking the Mississippi River. The menu includes 20 mixed cocktails as well as a monthly featured drink, pulling from an archive of about 1,000 recipes on the distillery’s website.
“It’s an extension of our brand; we'll have old-fashioned cocktails made with local and homemade ingredients,” Garrett Burchett said. “We can only serve what we produce here.”
The same applies to atmosphere: Cody Road Cocktail House won’t have TVs but will have a record player and live music on the weekends.
Free tours and tastings will continue, but now visitors can stay afterward. The cocktail house’s hours will mirror its neighbor, Green Tree Brewery.
“It’s one thing to sip a whiskey straight and leave; it’s a whole other thing to sit and enjoy a cocktail,” Ryan Burchett said. “Before, once you’ve been here, it’s kind of like, ‘What’s the point?’ This gives people a reason to come back.”
‘Felt like an eternity’
If you would have asked Garrett Burchett about this a year ago, he would have told you, “I was angry. I was frustrated.”
“When it’s your business — especially your family business — you’re looking at your wife and kids who are all part of this, it makes that fight that much more important,” he said.
“It felt like an eternity,” his brother said. “Alcohol law is something legislators don’t like to mess with.”
Mississippi River Distilling Co. distributes products in more than 30 states and at local bars and restaurants. Still, the owners felt like they were falling behind as competitors in Illinois and surrounding states were allowed to sell cocktails by the glass.
“When we opened, we thought tourism was an important aspect, and that’s why we opened in the location that we did,” Garrett Burchett said. “At the time, we thought that was enough.”
It wasn't, especially with 60,000 people visiting the distillery each year.
“The result of that is we’re giving away a lot of free samples,” he said. “By law, we had to give that away. It’s not that we were breaking even.”
That's why, in 2012, they started talking to legislators, shaking hands, sharing the brand's story and inviting top officials to the distillery.
“We wanted to be treated the same way,” Garrett Burchett said. “We thought, 'Why can’t we do what they're doing here in Iowa? Why can’t we do what wineries and breweries do?'”
Now that the fight is over, they are on to another challenge: Learning how to run a bar. They've hired 10 new employees, but they won't be able to practice making drinks until Saturday, when the law goes into effect.
"People expect to be able to sit and have a cocktail here," Garrett Burchett said. "Now, they can."