One of the huge privileges of growing our distillery here in West Wales has been the people we meet on our journey from all over the place. We recently had the incredible good fortune to welcome Bill Owens to our new premises. A force to be reckoned with, not only is Bill a renowned photographer, he is the founder of the American Distilling Institute.
One of the leading spokesmen for the craft distilling industry, Bill’s own experience and interest grew from brewing. Although
primarily a photographer, famous for his studies of post-war American suburbia, in the 1980s he turned his attention to brewing, setting up Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, one of the first brew-pubs in America since prohibition, and only possible because of a change in the law. Despite his kudos as a photographer, represented by some of the biggest galleries and agents in the world, and exhibiting internationally, Bill Owens turned to distilling to put his kids through college. As he is quoted in an article on United Nations of Photography.
“I made $100,000 one year selling prints … But the next year I made $22,000; so I am sure glad I don’t have to rely on photo sales. If you are an art photographer your job is to get out there and network. You have to push. You have to make friends with the right people. You write them letters. I have failed to push for shows and work, to make it a career. I figured after the books, what else did I have to do? But a book isn’t the answer; you have to get the work. I did photography for 14 years full time, but then I realised the kids needed to go to college, so I got out and into the distilling business.”
Photography continued to play a part in Bill’s life – and certainly his income stream, and led, whether inadvertently or not, to his setting up of the American Distilling Institute. When Elton John bought some of his work, Bill’s share after the gallery fee was enough for him to take off for 3 months across America, visiting breweries and distilleries as he went – taking in everything with the eye of a travelling distiller. With that experience behind him, he went through the bureaucratic hurdles of setting up the company in 2003 and held his first conference. He hired 65 chairs – and 85 people turned up.
Given Bill’s drive and energy, it’s no wonder the American Distilling Institute is now the largest organisation of small batch, independently owned distillers in the United States and the voice of craft distilling in the States. ADI conferences attract in the region of 2,000 attendees, and Bill has been pivotal in the craft distilling movement in the UK, helping to bring about the Craft Distilling Expo in London.
Amongst all this, Bill had the time to spend an hour or two with us on his latest visit to the UK. Bill’s incredible energy filled our new space at Tanygroes the moment he walked through the door; his enthusiastic passion for his work and his belief in what he is doing is evident in every question and comment, his curiosity in our experiences that had led us to founding the distillery, his encyclopaedic knowledge. We talked of heritage & the importance of not being stifled by it, but that knowing your past means you can build your future. Messages that resonate loudly with us. We learnt a huge amount chatting about everything from the technicalities around the installation of our new still, and all things distillation from recipes to bottles and labelling.
Meeting him at the distillery, sharing our story with him and listening to his wisdom was pretty inspirational stuff. Here’s someone with huge life experience endorsing our maverick approach to life and to distillation.
Bill Owens reckons it takes 2 years to set up a distillery and buys lunch for anyone who manages to do it in less. He’s bought 23 lunches so far. Having set up In the Welsh Wind from idea to first sale in 7 months, we’re looking forward to sharing a table with him soon!