By: Angie Weidinger, Producer
Forget all the attention the whiskey, gin and vodka is getting at Restless Spirits Distilling in the form of awards. Overlook the partnership it’s formed with Irishman John Teeling, the father of the Irish whiskey renaissance, to import and bottle some of his whiskey under their Sons of Erin label. Instead, focus on the incredible distiller of this two-year-old craft distillery; a former high school science teacher and grandma in an industry dominated by men. Her story, like the distillery and her spirits, is unique.
Benay Shannon is easy to spot when visiting Restless Spirits Distilling. She’s the one in pink steel-toed, rubber boots. In fact, the boots have become part of her identity and are even commemorated in the artwork of the distillery’s newest single malt whiskey release, GullyTown (although, they’re not obvious – it’s a fun “Where’s Waldo”-like game to try to spot them).
You have to move quickly to keep up with this Grandma. She’s regularly up and down stairs checking on the fermentation process, lugging hoses over to connect to her 500-gallon copper pot still and expertly driving the fork-lift around the distillery. No wonder she tells her friends at the gym, “This is like distillery boot camp!”
Even as we interviewed her, she got up four times to adjust the temperature of the still as her whiskey was going through its second distillation. “I can smell it, I’ll be right back,” she’d say as she’d slip away from the interview to tend to the still (I, by the way, could never smell the difference in the room).
Shannon believes it’s perhaps the physicality of the job that makes it a male dominated profession. She is the only female distiller in Missouri and one of only six in the nation. She sees that as one of her many advantages, “I think women make better distillers because we have a more defined palette, we have a better sense of smell. So, if anyone is going to make a good product, it’s going to be a woman!”
As we mentioned earlier, her alcoholic spirits are getting a lot of attention in the form of accolades and honors. But, people also love the stories behind their names and labels (for example, GullyTown is not only the name of one of her whiskeys, it was also the original nickname for Kansas City before it officially became a city in 1853). And, that’s where Benay’s husband Mike comes in. Mike has years of experience in product development and brand management. Mike and a friend actually had the idea to start a craft distillery. “So, they got themselves a little equipment to start to make some whiskey at home and realized they had no idea how to make whiskey and it was a little more complicated that they thought,” said Benay.
Ultimately, they left the distilling to Benay – who didn’t drink alcohol, but knew her way around a lab thanks to her degree in biology and high school science teacher background. Her husband took to developing intriguing names and labels for Benay’s products that feature his family’s Irish heritage. In fact, his great-great grandfather’s immigration papers are in the background of the Stone Breaker whiskey bottle. Restless Spirits Distillery also altered that same ancestor’s photo to hold a whiskey barrel, Paul Bunyon style. It’s now featured on many of the distillery’s items.
As for Benay, you would never guess she didn’t drink alcohol of any kind just a couple of years ago. She now has quite a palette for spirits. “Ooh – that’s pretty good!” she said smacking her lips while experimenting with some new blends in her distillation lab. Her drink of choice? Something she distilled, of course. “I have discovered that I can create alcohol that I will enjoy. My favorite whiskey is the GullyTown that I make. I’m very happy with it.”