How We Did It: Bloomin’ Business

Bloomery SweetShine makes a name
for itself with artisan cordials made on
the farm.

Written by Laura Wilcox Rote
Photographed by Deborah Kopper

It all started with a few lemons and raspberries—in West Virginia of all places. “Growing lemons in West Virginia is rather unique. We’re the very first commercial grower of lemons in the whole Mid-Atlantic,” says Rob Losey, director of sales and distribution at Bloomery Plantation Distillery.

Husband and wife team Linda Losey and Tom Kiefer bought a dilapidated 1840s log cabin in December 2010 from Craigslist, and cocktails as we know them haven’t been the same since. The Charles Town business quickly blossomed and, even, transformed—from its original product line to what is now a growing line called Bloomery SweetShine.

The idea to make limoncello came after a trip to Italy when Tom and his family fell in love with handmade limoncello. When they returned home and couldn’t find that same taste, they set out to make their own. Rob came on as their first employee, building the greenhouse, planting the raspberry field, and doing countless other tasks. Tom’s brother also works for Bloomery, and the company has grown to five full-time and five part-time employees.

But the group didn’t necessarily set out to start a business in West Virginia. Linda, Tom, and Rob have farms in Baltimore, while Rob also has a cottage in Charles Town. To be a mini-distillery in Maryland, you first have to be a vineyard, but Bloomery didn’t want to become a vintner and grow grapes. So they began to look elsewhere. “I don’t think we could have picked a better location than Charles Town,” Rob says, noting the area’s tourists and proximity to D.C. Plus they had support in West Virginia—from local governments and consumers. They work closely with officials in Jefferson County, which happens to be one of the few counties in the state with an agriculture development officer on its economic development team. “That has been a big plus in helping us get our name out and find resources to help us with sourcing what we can’t grow,” Rob says. “If we can’t grow all our raspberries we source raspberries from local farmers.” In order to be a mini-distillery in West Virginia, 25 percent of raw agricultural ingredients have to be grown on-site. The team grows lemons, raspberries, ginger, pumpkins, and walnuts on the property and the peaches come from Martinsburg. “It’s not really farm-to-table, but farm-to-bottle. No farm, no hooch,” Rob says.

In the first 26 months, Bloomery saw nearly 30,000 visitors. “We sell out of every bottle we make. Our biggest challenge is keeping up with production,” Rob says. In fall 2010 what was called, simply, Cello, began to transform as flavors expanded. When the distillery opened it offered four products; now it offers nine. One of the first flavors was hard lemonade, using a byproduct of the limoncello and hand-squeezed lemons. When the staff started to add more adventurous drinks—incorporating chocolate, peach, pumpkin, and ginger—they realized they’d traveled far from the limoncello family. “Outside of the distillery—in bartenders’ hands and on the liquor store shelves—the name Cello was putting us in a pigeonhole,” Rob says. “People thought of Cello as an after-dinner drink or a sipper. We are so much more than limoncello. It’s our flagship and our number one seller and absolutely phenomenal, but when you start tasting the peach and the pumpkin and the ginger, they are really nontraditional and Cello was the wrong moniker.”

So staff at Bloomery set out to find a name that was fun, memorable, and authentic for their products. “Everything we do starts with 190-degree moonshine,” Rob says. “We wanted the labels to be reminiscent of turn-of-the-century seed labels. We’ve personified all of our labels on our bottles—we’ve got the ginger guy and the pumpkin girl and so on.” Linda found an award-winning artist to do the design, and in March 2013, the new line was launched.

Bloomery has won many awards, including Best Overall Marketing Campaign for a Tourism Business in West Virginia. The distillery has also won nearly 20 international and national medals and awards covering everything from packaging to taste.

Employees at the distillery offer free tastings in an intimate, rustic space on the farm, and Rob and the gang never fail to please with lively presentations. “We try to make that a really fun experience to help us build our brand,” he says. “One of our biggest challenges is being able to carry that fun experience outside of the distillery and into the market. It’s one thing to have a nice looking bottle, but as a small business, marketing budgets are limited. We have family, friends, and volunteers help bring our bottle characters to life and take them on the road to various events.” Staff at Bloomery think outside the box, traveling across the state and beyond, even partnering with giants like the Smithsonian National Zoo and dressing up for events. The distillery is hosting more of its own events, too, and hopes to do more mixology classes in the future.

Rob says the next hurdle to overcome is being able to sell on Sunday. He says few great Sunday brunch options exist in West Virginia because restaurants can’t sell a Bloody Mary or mimosa until 1 p.m. He says the distillery is a lot like a winery, and there are 50 or so wineries within 20 miles of Bloomery. “I watch West Virginia dollars drive right by my door every Sunday, and I’m not able to pull Virginia dollars in. That’s painful.”

Bloomery SweetShine is sold in West Virginia liquor stores and in Washington, D.C., many restaurants, and soon on shelves in Virginia and Tennessee.

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