It's Coventry Village in the late '80s, and Kevin Suttman and his brothers are looking for beer. Kevin is the youngest of eight children — seven brothers, one sister — and on this weekend, three or four of them are crashing at his apartment. Kevin is a student at John Carroll, and his family is Irish Catholic. Alcohol is basically a requirement. When they go to pick up the customary 24-pack of the cheap stuff, they spot a sixer of a beer called Erlanger. None of them had tried it before, so they decide to give it a whirl.
It made a lasting impression.
"From that point forward we were looking for craft beer," says Suttman. And they had to look pretty hard, as the U.S. still was far from the mid-2000s microbrewery explosion. The search led Suttman and his brothers to what he calls their "favorite pastime": homebrewing. A competitive lot, Sutton and his brothers would see who could brew the best beer of the bunch. It pushed him to new heights, he notes. "I felt like I would one-up everyone else and start a distillery."
That distillery is now Seven Brothers. It's set up in a barn in LeRoy Township, outside Kevin's home town of Painesville. Gracious in his one-upmanship, Suttman named the distillery and its products after his family. (Well, most of his family. He did, however, name a "sweet but strong" signature drink called "The Angry Sister" to make up for leaving her out.)
Seven Brothers isn't a big distillery, but it's growing. When Suttman opened six years ago, it was producing two to three hundred bottles per product per quarter. Now that number is closer to 1,000. Additionally, they've expanded their liquor line and repackaged it into sleek, modern-looking bottles with an eye-catching logo.
Rather than limiting the distillery to one kind of spirit, Suttman distills most of the majors: vodka, gin and whisky. (Rum should be available by early October.) While the catch-all approach might fall short in other hands, Suttman achieves quality spirits in all categories.
The infused vodkas, cinnamon and espresso (made with Phoenix coffee), are clean-sipping spirits far removed from the sickly sweet flavored spirits found at college parties. The Seven Botanicals gin, which won a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, is flavorful but not too "hot" (boozy-tasting in industry parlance). Suttman thinks of it as a non-gin drinker's gin.
And the wonderful Hickory Smoked Whisky (note the Irish spelling: no "e") tastes, as head of business development John Lesnick puts it, "like Scotch and bourbon met at a barbecue."
Suttman approaches distilling "like a mad science experiment." That's pretty apt, considering he built his stills from scratch with no engineering experience. Early on in his tinkering, he "stumbled on" the idea of vacuum distillation while looking for ways to heat the still without an open flame. Now, all his stills use this rare bit of booze technology. He heats his still with 150-degree water instead of the usual 330-degree steam. The benefit, as Suttman sees it, comes in taste: "You're not boiling away all the flavor."
One of the greatest benefits of the distillery is that it has brought Suttman closer to home. Before Seven Brothers he was a national sales manager for a construction company and traveling a lot. "It was tough on the family," he says. "Now, I'm literally just a few doors down." He and his wife, also a Painesville native, will soon celebrate their 25th anniversary.
As for the namesake brothers: One other made it in the booze business. He owns Industrial Revolution Brewing in Erie, Colorado. The family is proud, says Suttman, adding that his brother "makes excellent beer."
"Alcohol runs in our veins," he says. "In more ways than one."