Good whiskey isn't made overnight. It goes through a long process of distillation that can take years before it's ready to go from barrel to bottle. You might say Phil Brandon is like a good whiskey.
Brandon, who turned 55 on Tuesday, is the brains and the brawn behind Rock Town Distillery, an award-winning maker of whiskey, gin, vodka and other spirits located at 1201 Main St. in Little Rock, a novel location for a distillery.
Where else would it be? Phil Brandon is a lifelong Little Rocker, born in 1964 at St. Vincent's Infirmary. He'd go on to attend Henderson Elementary and then graduate from Hall High School in 1982.
He's married to his grade-school sweetheart, Diana, and has two children. Daughter Darby, 25, works in advertising in New York; son Trent, 22, works with his dad at Rock Town, learning the ropes, and has a 6-month-old daughter, Avey-Kait, with whom grandpa is smitten.
Diana Brandon is music director at Asbury Methodist Church, and Phil sings in the choir and plays flute and bass guitar. The distillery takes up most of Brandon's time, but he's still passionate about music. He has played the flute since sixth grade. Around the eighth grade, Brandon finally got the electric bass guitar he had been begging for for years and when high school rolled around he became an All State band member for his flute skills and played guitar in the school jazz band while gigging in garage bands on the outside.
But he wasn't just a band geek, he was also an All State tight end on the Hall football team. He played lots of tennis. And he also found time for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Diana Faas.
"We actually met in the fourth grade at the bus stop. She lived in Leawood as well. We went together a whole five days in seventh grade. She broke up with me to go steady with another boy. Then in ninth grade we got back together and dated for a year and a half, and then halfway through the 10th grade we broke up and then halfway through the 11th we picked it back up again and we've been together ever since," Brandon says.
When it was time for college, Phil and Diana had to go their separate ways again, but kept the relationship going. "My first year at college was at Mizzou (University of Missouri) then I transferred for the last three years and got my bachelor of science in electrical engineering from (Texas) A&M," Brandon says.
Diana Faas went to North Texas State University in Denton, where she earned a degree in music for the organ.
In 1986, "I graduated on Aug. 16, got married Aug. 23 and started my first job Sept. 1," Brandon says.
The couple hadn't really planned on coming back to Little Rock to settle, but as luck would have it, that's where Brandon's first job offer came from.
Brandon handled outside sales for Keithley Patterson Electric.
"I was there for five years. It was primarily selling industrial electrical supplies and industrial controls."
While there, Brandon went to night school at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, earning an MBA in 1991. "Back then it wasn't one of those MBAs you can get over the weekend. It was 63 hours. At night. While I was working and playing in a band."
Brandon played gigs in between working and studying with the bands Hazynation, Jet 420 and Superflux. Hazynation, Brandon says, "is probably the most popular band I ever played in. We played Juanita's, Blue Mesa, Cajun's and Smitty's over and over and over again."
If Brandon seems like a guy who can do anything he sets his mind to, he gets it honestly. Both parents were go-getters, setting examples for their boys that hard work pays off and nothing is out of reach to those who try.
The Brandon family lived in the Leawood subdivision in a house on a cul-de-sac. "It was a pretty idyllic, middle-class upbringing. Two dogs, a brother. My dad was an ad man, had his own advertising agency," Brandon recalls.
From an early age, the Brandon boys (Phil and his older brother Alex, now a photographer with The Associated Press in Washington, D.C.) had pretty much been typecast.
"My dad one time when we were little bought him a camera and me a calculator. I was in seventh grade I guess, and he was in 10th grade. So he got a camera and he became the one who covered football games and all that stuff and went through the journalism part of high school. And I got a calculator and I took calculus and stayed on the science side of things, and the music thing and the football thing," Brandon says.
Brandon's father, Jim, who died in Washington in 2006 after moving there in the late 1980s, was a successful one-man ad agency who also had political aspirations.
"He ran for office a lot. He was a political junkie so there was a series of four failed campaigns during my adolescence. He spent a lot of time on the road politicking. We went to all the catfish frying dinners, you know, the coon suppers, you name it, I went to them. It was interesting but it was hard every time he lost," Brandon recalls.
Brandon's mother, Phyllis, stayed busy raising her children and making her own mark on the world. "Mom had her little projects. She was PTA president and had a garden show on TV at one point. My parents divorced when I was in high school. My mom at the time was working ... as a technical writer and working the weekends showing apartments. ... She had worked newspapers right out of college. She worked at the Arkansas Traveler newspaper at the U of A and came home and worked and covered the Central High crisis and did all that," he says.
"Once she had babies she quit working for a little while but she was never one to want to stay home. She always wanted to work, and that may also have been due to the fact that we needed the money. So she started doing some weekend work for the paper, you know, covering society things," Brandon says.
It wasn't long thereafter that this newspaper's High Profile section was born.
"Somebody had the idea to start a section, a section very similar to what the profile section is in Dallas. So they kind of used that as a model and added some things that my mom came up with and started the High Profile section in the paper. She went to work full time and my brother taught her how to shoot pictures. She did that for 25 years," Brandon says.
While working at Keithley Patterson, the industrial world was beginning to change. "It was starting to get to be where everything was programmable. So there are programs that you write to control industrial machines," Brandon explains. He spent the next several years working in industrial automation at a handful of companies.
After 14 years in the industrial automation field, Brandon was looking at other career opportunities.
"I wanted to do something different and Alltell wireless had grown here in Little Rock and had their corporate presence, and I had some friends who worked there. So I ended up getting a job there."
That was 1999, "and the next thing that happened is the tech bubble burst and Alltell did a round of layoffs. I didn't get laid off but I got demoted and that was not going to work."
He left Alltell to work for another telecom company, which shortly thereafter filed for bankruptcy. Brandon moved on to work in the information technology department at another firm, then went back to Alltell. Alltell was bought by Verizon in 2009, and Brandon was laid off.
"It was also the bottom of the worst recession since the Great Depression. There weren't a whole lot of jobs to get and I was doing a bit of soul-searching to figure out what I wanted to do," Brandon says.
It was time to take stock of his life. He didn't want to work for anyone else. He had an idea for a new business and it would be risky. Could he make it work? In Little Rock?
"In the process of working at Alltell and all these other places, I had developed an appreciation for the craft of making whiskey, and I started not just drinking whiskey but really reading about it and all."
Brandon would stop by Colonial Wine & Spirits, buy a bottle of whiskey and drink it over the weekend.
"Then on Monday morning I would use my free time at work to Google a whiskey that I had over the weekend and learn everything I could about it. Where it comes from, how it's made, what makes it special and its tasting notes, all that kind of stuff. In the process of doing that I discovered there were distilleries in the United States that were small and similar to craft breweries. They were called craft distilleries and these guys were actually making their own whiskey!"
That's when Brandon decided to take a shot.
Brandon put together a business plan and started pitching it to banks, finally getting a bite from Centennial Bank.
"I ended up getting an SBA loan that was part of the Obama stimulus package."
THE BIG UNVEILING
On Sept. 2, 2010, Brandon, with his mother's help rounding up guests, threw a grand opening party at the Arkansas Arts Center that is now infamous for being one of those uh-oh moments in a company's profile.
"My advice to anybody trying to start a new business is don't set a date when you're going to launch a product before you have the product. I set that Sept. 2 date, we sold tickets, we did all that and the product just wasn't ready. And we had some problems with our equipment that couldn't be alleviated in the amount of time we needed. You know, I had a product and I made the choice to go ahead with it and, you know, I stubbed my toe. So we went back to the drawing board, reconfigured things and spent a lot of time working very hard, and it worked out."
Three years later Rock Town won double gold awards in San Francisco for its bourbon whiskey. Another double gold for its gin. The vodka scored 93 out of 100 in another competition.
Things were looking up at Rock Town, but the young distillery was still on shaky ground. The tours were a hit, the products were selling, but there wasn't a steady moneymaker to support the more expensive liquors.
In 2012, Diana Brandon decided to try a cold call to a businessman she'd heard of to see if he might be interested in investing in the young distillery.
Nick Pierce had been in the beer distribution business in Little Rock for 37 years, running Twin City Beverage, which later became Harbor. Pierce sold the company in 2010.
"I didn't know Philip but I'd read about his product ... We set up a meeting and visited with him about what he had going on and what was going on with the business. Then I talked to my partners, and two of them and our attorney decided to invest in it," Pierce says.
"It was a struggle for five years. Philip worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Philip is 99.9% of the business. He would call me sometimes for ideas or thoughts and all that, but he's the guy that gets the credit for what's happened down there. He's very intelligent. He's a stay-with-it guy who would just never give up and there were a lot of days we thought we might have to," Pierce says.
Pierce's advise to Brandon was to come up with a product that sells day in and day out to pay all the bills. So Phil, Pierce says, "came up with Rock Town Vodka, and that's really what put us over the top as far as financially."
Diana Brandon is proud of the role she played in the distillery's success, and she only did it because she knows her husband well. "The word I'm going to use is determined. He just wouldn't quit. I feel like he's one of those guys who can do anything he wants to do, period. He works eight days a week but he loves it. He's up to date on everything all the time, distillery related."
Rock Town is currently booming. There are 23 employees now, where two years ago there were eight. On Saturday, the 9th Anniversary Celebration is planned from 11 a.m. to midnight at the distillery, 1201 Main St., Little Rock. There will be free tours from 1 to 5 p.m., held on the hour. Mr. Mason's will sell barbecue plates for $15 and the bar will offer cocktails and local craft beer. At 6:30 p.m., Brandon will host a seated tasting of the 9th Anniversary Single Malt Whiskey -- distilled from 100% malted barley and aged for two years in ex-bourbon casks and finished for one year in a cognac cask -- and three unreleased Rock Town whiskeys.
The celebration comes at a good time for Rock Town. Its move from the East Village on Sixth Street to Main Street has been a successful one. Sales are booming, tours are steadily booked and the distillery boasts a ranking as the No. 2 "thing to do" in Little Rock, behind only Pinnacle Mountain.
The accolades keep pouring in for Rock Town's products, and no one is more proud than Brandon's mother, Phyllis, now 83.
"He's named for me, you know! He is a talented young man and a great son. He can play several musical instruments and is in the choir at Asbury Methodist. And he has made a success of Rock Town Distillery."
And her son is finally where he wants to be.
"Just like anything, there are days when it doesn't go your way, but at the end of the day you can always just walk in the barrel house and smell the whiskey aging and it kind of seems to make it all worthwhile," Phil Brandon says.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: June 11, 1964. Little Rock
• I'M HAPPIEST WHEN: Tasting whiskey straight from the barrel at Rock Town Distillery.
• WHEN I WAS A LITTLE BOY I WANTED TO BE: I really wanted to be a garbage man. You know, that was back in the day when they walked to the back of your yard, grabbed the trash can and carried it all the way to the front, dumped it by hand and walked all the way back. They were big and strong. And I just wanted to be big and strong.
• BEST ADVICE I'VE EVER GOTTEN: If it's all work, might as well do what you love doing.
• THE LAST PODCAST I LISTENED TO WAS: Bourbon Pursuit, a bourbon and whiskey focused podcast.
• MY FAVORITE COCKTAIL OF THE MOMENT IS: Philzerac. It's a riff on a Sazerac. It has a little bit more of the anise flavor and is served on a large ice cube instead of neat.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: Filet mignon and English peas.
• BUT I WON'T EAT: Raw onions.
• MY IDEA OF A GREAT VACATION IS: A trip to Scotland, going through the Scottish Highlands visiting distilleries would be the ideal vacation for me.
• ARE YOU A DOG PERSON OR CAT PERSON: I grew up with dogs but I have cats now. Dave is a big fat orange cat. Willow is a big fluffy Himalayan.
• BEST THING ABOUT GROWING UP IN LITTLE ROCK: Meeting my future wife in the fourth grade at the bus stop.
• ONE WORD THAT BEST DESCRIBES ME IS: Determined
“My advice to anybody trying to start a new business is don’t set a date when you’re going to launch a product before you have the product.” - Philip Dillaha Brandon
High Profile on 06/16/2019