We set out on a sunny day, looking to go 10 feet above sea level. We intended to anyway, but the drink that goes by this name was unavailable at the moment, due to the long and arduous process behind Sea Level’s house-made tonic. The folks at the Salem bar and restaurant, however, still managed to proffer up Deacon Giles gin in cocktails appropriate for a couple of sailors, before we headed off to the Deacon Giles distillery. An adventure all its own: finding the tucked-away Salem spirit maker.
The door to Deacon Giles is technically on Gardner Street, but has a 75 Canal Street address. The owners warn that there’s no place to park when you get there. We prefer walking everywhere in Salem anyway. We trekked along Canal, embracing the grit, the train rumbling underfoot and the crumbly sidewalk, disappearing and reappearing at intervals. (An easier and perhaps prettier way is along Lafayette Street. With the Saltonstall School on your left, turn right on Gardner.) We arrived to a congratulatory greeting from owners Ian Hunter and Jesse Brenneman, who can’t help but enjoy the speakeasy aspect to their hidden locale. “People say, ‘I had a hard time finding you,’ and we respond, ‘But you did,’” says Hunter.
My partner in tasting had been carefully chosen, an editor of books on food and drink trends. We anticipated the sustaining pour as we bellied up to the bar made of reclaimed wood. The warehouse, former headquarters for Salem Glass, has been pristinely and lovingly rehabbed, with all the hipster trappings of the beverage world, including pretty, gleaming silver distilling contraptions, cool “merch” for sale, and stylish stereo equipment that perfectly marries one of the owner’s vintage tuners with the other’s vintage speakers.
While recent livability indexes have listed a brewery and a riverwalk as urban-musts, Salem is about to boast a brewery on a riverwalk when Notch opens its brewery this summer along the South River. And then there’s the popular Far From The Tree cidery making things cool over on Jefferson Avenue. The guys at Deacon Giles are simply a piece of a burgeoning puzzle, helping satisfy city permitting and cocktail cravings for us all. Together, the Deacon Giles guys can speak at length about the small city’s social layers and elbow room for creation. Hunter touts Salem’s arts and foodie scene, adding, “But there was nobody making booze and we realized what we needed was a beverage district.”
Confession: I went to high school thousands of miles away in Southern Missouri with Hunter’s wife, Sarah, and was thrilled to discover, around 2003, that they were also living in Salem. They had moved up from Boston when a friend was vacating a historic, affordable apartment by Salem Common. Now, a fixer-upper house, two kids, and a business later, Hunter has invested in Salem for the long haul. Meanwhile, Brenneman and his wife, Ashley, recently bought a home down the road from the new venture.
For years, Hunter shook his head in disbelief that Salem, with its salty history, wasn’t producing beer and spirits. When the couple lived on Milk Street, they talked about a brewery of the same name. Would people want to drink beer from the Milk Street Brewery? Meanwhile, Brenneman stumbled onto a brewing kit in college up in New Hampshire and never looked back. He was production manager at Harpoon in Boston when he met Hunter, the company’s controller. They were dreaming the same dream of opening a brewery. “We’d stand in the employee lounge with a beer and say, ‘What’s next?’” recalls Brenneman, “We’re not going to stay here for the rest of our lives.’”
That’s when Hunter, a history enthusiast, who for several years volunteered as a crew member on the East Indiaman Friendship in Salem, stumbled onto a story that would change his life. “At the time I thought, that’s a great story,” says Hunter, “too bad it’s about a distillery.” It was about a rum-making deacon who accidentally hired a gang of demons to operate his distillery. The demons decided to play a trick, secretly branding the barrels with messages of damnation that glowed with an unholy light. The story originated in 1835 from the mouth of a minister involved with the temperance movement. It worked, leading to the prohibition of rum in Salem, a city that once boasted seven rum distilleries that provided liquid pleasure to locals and merchant ships for export.
When the beer-brewing world started to get crowded, the two shifted their focus to making spirits and suddenly the Deacon Giles story was alive and well in the form of the Liquid Damnation Rum and Original Gin that filled their distinctive square-cut bottles with simple and colorful labels that stand out on the shelf. The spirits can be found in about 100 locations, both restaurants and liquor stores, from Boston to Newburyport.
The two enjoy their separate areas of expertise: Hunter works on the business side with Brenneman assisting, and Brenneman distills with help from Hunter. “When he needs someone to rake the grain out of the the mash tun, I’m the one to do it,” says Hunter.
Like most entrepreneurs, the friends put in long hours and have an obsessive commitment to the business. It’s a good thing they are married to supportive women. “They keep the world revolving while we’re stuck in our solar system,” says Hunter. “The other day, my wife texted: ‘It can wait until tomorrow. Come home.’”
“They tell us when to shower and dress,” says Brenneman, adding that he missed his babies’ first real crawls. “I asked my wife to take a video.”
Tasters are currently welcomed at the distillery Fridays and Saturdays to sample and purchase Liquid Damnation Rum, made from 100 percent molasses with hints of pepper and banana with caramel and vanilla in the finish; and Original Gin, with its bright bursts of cardamom, orange, and lemon peel and earthy finish of Angelica root, rose hips, and mace blade—Salem’s first import, along with pepper.
In the works are plans to slowly ramp up the output, as well as diversify the product line. Says Brenneman, “It involves hiring some demons.”