When it comes to leisure-time refreshments, Robert and Bridget Schulten are not interested in soft drinks or bottled water. “We have always been cocktail people,” said Bridget, with unapologetic old-school sophistication. “We’re both gin drinkers.”
Of course, there is a big difference between opening a bottle of gin and creating the bottle’s contents from scratch. Yet the Schultens are happily producing their own gin, as well as whiskey and vodka, at Asylum Distillery, their Bridgeport business and the first Fairfield County distillery to open since the Prohibition era.
For Robert Schulten, a former chemical engineer with General Electric, the first and greatest hurdle in creating the liquor required him to pass his wife’s discriminating taste testing. “I’d bring home three bottles every day and I go, ‘Bridg, what do you like?’” he recalled. “And she’d go, ‘Those two are awful, that one is closer.’ And we did that for a couple of years. Like anything else, you have to make all of the mistakes before you know what’s good.”
Somewhat more onerous than Bridget’s taste preferences were the regulatory hurdles required to get the company up and running at their 259 Asylum St. location. “According to the laws, we had to have our equipment in place before we applied for a federal permit,” said Bridget, who handles the company’s sales and also runs her own executive recruitment firm serving the financial services industry. “Although we opened in May 2016, we were here two years prior getting the licensing and the liquor permit. It took a year for the federal government to give their approval, and then we had to take that approval to the state, which took six months.”
“We had rent and taxes on this place while we were two years in the regulatory process,” said Robert. “There are huge capital costs involved.” The company also has two part-time employees.
And how huge were those capital costs? The Schultens declined to disclose those figures. “We’re cash flow break-even at this point,” said Robert.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Bridget.
Asked what would have happened if regulatory approval was denied after the time and financial investment put into their startup work, the couple silently shook their heads and frowned.
However, the Schultens did not jump through regulatory hoops when dealing with Bridgeport city government. “Fortunately, the city’s regulations from 100 years ago said that a distillery was permissible in the city, so we didn’t have to get special approval from anyone to do this,” said Bridget. “One of the reasons we’re in Bridgeport is because there is great infrastructure here for light manufacturing facilities. And we have good water
and good power.”
The Schultens use cracked corn that is not genetically modified from Pleasant View Farm in Somers for their product line. “Each mash requires 100 gallons of water and 300 pounds of corn,” said Robert, referring to the distilling process. “We produce about 100 bottles a day. When we started out, we made the clear liquids first because they didn’t need any aging in a barrel. The clear ones — the vodka, gin and corn whiskey — we released last May. This past February, we put our unaged corn whiskey into new American oak barrels and aged it for four to six months.”
The company plans to expand into flavored alcoholic drinks, and a section of the company’s factory is set aside with jars of spices and liquids that are tested to determine their suitability for the new product line. The initial foray into flavor experimentation resulted in a summer release called Ginger Zap – vodka infused with fresh ginger.
“This is what I dream about,” said Robert. “The flavors are the sexy part for me. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
The Schultens’ fermented products are getting noticed, thanks in large part to a heavy lineup of special-event tastings around the state and the social media marketing outreach of Neil Doocy, a recent graduate of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute who also designed the distillery’s product labeling. Asylum Distillery won a silver medal this year for its gin from the American Distilling Institute, and the product line is now in 95 retail outlets in Connecticut.
Tours of the company’s factory kicked off on Sept. 15, though reservations are required. And visitors may need to search for the location — the distillery is at the end of an alley in an industrial section of the city.
“We’re off the main drag,” said Robert. “There’s not much street traffic, except on Saturdays when people are going to the city dump or playing ball in the field
across the street.”
And while Asylum Street inspired the company’s name, Bridget said she believed the name on the company’s bottles offered a safe and relaxing vibe for someone seeking comfort in a libation.
“Some people think an asylum is where you put crazy relatives,” she said laughing. “I like to think of ‘asylum’ as a sanctuary.”