Entrepreneurial Spirits

Belle of Dayton breathes new life into old moniker

By Kevin J. Gray

Photo: The Belle of Dayton still is made of stainless steel and is visible from the distillery’s tasting room

Humble beginnings & historic roots

Belle of Dayton started as a simple idea: To produce the best small batch spirits available in Dayton. Brothers Mike and Murphy LaSelle, co-owners of the distillery, started as beer and whiskey drinkers who dabbled with homebrewing. With each successive homebrewed beer, they pushed the alcohol content higher. When they finally topped out at around 12 percent ABV, they asked themselves, “Are we making the wrong product?” Their attention turned to making spirits.

Mike explains, unlike with homebrewing, there isn’t a lot of information freely available on distilling. This dearth of information is because distilling is still government regulated. So, the brothers started taking classes in Kentucky and in Chicago. Here, they learned the finer points of fermentation and distillation. At the end of one of the classes, their instructor encouraged them to start their own distillery.

Entrepreneurs by blood, the LaSelles took their instructor’s advice. Both men had years of experience working for their family company, Mattress Innovations (where they still hold down full-time jobs in addition to working in the distillery). The brothers applied this experience to crafting a business of their own.

With the help of others, Mike and Murphy purchased a building that once housed an antique shop along Wayne Avenue, on the edge of the Oregon District. During 2013 and the better part of early 2014, they renovated the building and installed their distilling operation, a glorious stainless steel masterpiece with a steampunk feel. They also carved out a small tasting room at the building’s front, where visitors can taste the company’s product and purchase spirits and souvenirs.

The most elusive part of the start-up process? What to name the fledgling company. The brothers had considered and discarded hundreds of names when an article in the Dayton Daily News sparked their interest. A mysterious whiskey bottle had been found in the basement of a Third Street building, carrying the label “Belle of Dayton.” Within hours of reading the article, Mike and Murphy had registered their business under the Belle moniker.

Mike explains the name taps into the rich distilling history of the Miami Valley. Pre-prohibition, Dayton was a distillery town, producing bottles of whiskey and rye for local consumption and exporting product as far south as New Orleans. Belle of Dayton hopes to resurrect that local legacy. “I think it ties in really well with the history of Dayton distilling; it ties into the people of Dayton,” Mike explains. “It’s not about the LaSelle family, it’s about the city of Dayton. It’s about bringing back distilling to Dayton.” Fitting words for a company that joined the ranks of certified Dayton Originals.

Best in class

I visited the distillery twice while working on this story. On my first visit, construction was complete, but they were not yet open for business. Their still in place, Mike and Murphy, along with their brother Tim, were making small experimental batches, but they hadn’t yet sold their first bottle of vodka. Fast-forward several months later and Belle has exploded all over town. Their first offering, a high-end vodka, has not only permeated local retail stores, but has also worked its way into liquor shelves at the area’s best cocktail bars, as well as a few unexpected places. As a sign of its ubiquity, it’s now the go-to vodka choice at Lucky’s Taproom & Eatery, known more as a beer bar than a cocktail one, and it is the lone vodka available at The Century Bar, Dayton’s premier bourbon bar.

The distillery’s meteoric launch wasn’t accidental. Belle strives to be the best in class at whatever they make, a sentiment embedded in the ethos of the company. “Every product you are going to see leaving this distillery, if we’ve decided we’re going to make it, we did it for one reason,” Mike says. “We did it because we know we can make a better product than what’s out there. . . . Everything that comes out of here is going to be a higher quality spirit, or we will not release it.”

This attitude has brought attention to the operation, even from beyond the Ohio borders. On my second visit, our interview was delayed because Mike had received a call from his brother. Murphy had just gotten an email from the New York International Wine and Spirits show, informing the duo they had won a silver medal in the 2014 competition. Not too shabby for a distillery that had only been open for a couple of months and for whom this represented their first competition entry.

But vodka is only the beginning for Belle of Dayton. The brothers aim to create a wide variety of craft spirits. During my last visit, the brothers were working on their craft rum, which hit the shelves near the end of 2014, and gave me as sample of what is undeniably the hottest vodka available, Hell’s Vodka.

Blending past with present

Mike is particularly animated in talking about the rum, released as 1775 Colonial Reserve Rum. The spirit is a modern take on an old style. “We are trying to emulate an 18th-century style rum,” he explains. Doing so means using ingredients the early colonial distillers would have used—namely, molasses. Rum was a product of Britain’s colonial empire triangle trade. European colonies in the Caribbean grew sugar cane and processed the sugar. They were left with molasses, which was shipped to New England, where it was turned into rum. “What the British would have been bringing to the colonies would have been a byproduct of making sugar,” Mike says. “In Britain they wanted sugar. They were never going to bring that to the states. They wanted that for their citizens…[but] the practice of getting that crystalized sugar out of the sugar cane juice was extremely inefficient so [it resulted in] a byproduct: molasses, called blackstrap molasses. Back in the 18th century, that [molasses] had a ton of fermentable sugars in it. Blackstrap today versus blackstrap back in the eighteenth century are two entirely different products, because with technologies and processes and refining it and making more efficient, blackstrap today has very few fermentable sugars.”

To get the true taste of an eighteenth-century-inspired rum, the brothers LaSelle had to source molasses that was similar to what the colonists would have had accessed. Fortuitously, the answer was here in Dayton. International Molasses has a plant in the Miami Valley and specializes in, among other products, molasses for the craft distiller. This molasses, being a heavy product, is cost prohibitive for most small distillers to have shipped. But given the close proximity of the plant to Belle of Dayton, Mike and Murphy were able to pick up the molasses themselves and transport it to their distillery.

During the interview, Mike offered a sample of the white, unaged rum. It was robust and sweet—incredibly easy to drink. The rum is smooth and we sipped it like a scotch. In the months since that initial taste, the rum has been released and has started to garner awards. This March, Belle of Dayton won their second medal, this time a silver medal for the 1775 Colonial Reserve Rum at the 2015 San Francisco Worlds Spirit competition.

The rum, with its reincarnation of an old recipe melded with the newer technology used to produce it, also taps into the Belle of Dayton ethos.

“Our whole philosophy for this company is old world expertise coupled with modern technologies and innovations in distilling and aging,” Mike explains, noting they are interested in taking the best from the old and combining it with new ways of doing things. “We’re not going to just say, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s always been done.’ We’re going to say there’s something to that, we’re going to take that old world expertise, but we’re going to couple that with better technologies, better ways of doing it because we have that at our fingertips. We’re not just trying to emulate an eighteenth-century style distillery, we’re taking an eighteenth-century recipe and trying to make the best product we possibly can.”

The LaSelle brothers continue to experiment with new ways of producing classic spirits. During my last visit, they were started mashing an experimental whiskey that they will release later this year. It’s an Ohio rye whiskey made with four grains – rye dominates, coupled with corn, wheat, and barley. Initially, it will be released as a white, unaged whiskey. But, there’s a twist. Belle plans to pair the whiskey with oak staves that customers can use to age their whiskey at home.

This unique approach to aging is part of yet another innovation on the horizon at Belle of Dayton. The owners have been experimenting with what they have dubbed as “advanced form of stave maturing.” Mike is secretive about the process, noting only that, “[t]here are over 4,000 natural chemical reactions that happen within the charred oak barrel; we are honing our maturing process so those reactions happen in a fraction of the time so you can taste and drink some of the best rye whiskey available today.” He adds, “This process will also make it possible for us to utilize different types of wood that before were not possible for a cooperage to make into a barrel and for Belle of Dayton to come out with seasonal limited release fully matured whiskey small one of a kind batches.” The team expects the first batch of this oak-aged whiskey to hit the shelves somewhere around the end of this year.

Artists and entrepreneurs

At heart, the LaSelle brothers are fine craftsmen as well as businessmen. While they plan to turn their experimental aging process into a spin-off company (and have several more company ideas in the works), they are passionate and highly involved in creating their products. They understand that producing a high quality spirit means attention to details throughout the distilling process. Distillation is a labor-intensive process for them. “You have to literally be at the equipment the entire time, smelling it, tasting it, watching for visuals like cloudiness,” Mike explains. “I mean, there’s a lot that goes into this and you’ve got to be constantly testing that product as it does come off, because you want to make sure you are hitting the right parts.

This dedication takes on near-religious overtones. When I asked Mike about the distillation process, he explained it using language that a fifteenth century monk might have employed. After mashing the grains, a distiller is left with “the body” of the product. The LaSelle team uses the still to release the spirit from that body. “You’ve got your body . . . then as you distill you are distilling off what looks like a spirit releasing from the body,” Mike says. “The body is meaningless, the true heart of that product is the spirit, which is why the heart of the run is always the cleanest part of that run as well.”

Bring it home

Belle of Dayton is a homegrown original. You can find Belle of Dayton’s original vodka, rum, and their Hell’s pepper-infused vodka at most area liquor stores (with the unaged and aged-whiskeys available at the same locations later this year). Want to know more about the distilling process? Take a tour and sample some products.

Belle of Dayton is located in the Oregon District at 122 Van Buren St. (corner of Van Buren and Wayne Avenue). The bottle shop is open on Fridays from 5-7 p.m., and full-sensory tours are at 7 p.m. on Saturday and include tastings, 8 oz. glassware and the chance to experience exceptional aromas throughout your visit. Tours are by appointment only and space is limited to 25 guests. All guests must be at least 21 years of age. Cost is $10 per guest. For more details, please call 937.867.BELL or visit belleofdayton.com.

Kevin J. Gray is Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geek. A firm believer in all things balanced, when Kevin isn’t drinking craft beer, he’s hiking or biking to keep his beer belly in optimal shape. Reach Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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