Five Questions With: Manya Rubinstein

The Industrious Spirit Co. in downtown Providence is aptly located in a mill building where things have been made for more than 150 years. The first distillery in the city since Prohibition, the beverage manufacturer produces vodka, gins and bourbons – all sustainably sourced.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown it some curveballs, and it’s had to pivot unexpectedly, but CEO Manya Rubinstein says ISCO has still found ways to stay creative, connected to community and committed to sustainable beverage production.

PBN: The tasting room there was supposed to open just as COVID-19 hit. How has the business put that chain of events into perspective?

RUBINSTEIN: We were partially through a series of friends and family events and a mere month away from our grand opening. After four years of business planning, fundraising and major construction, we had finally put the finishing touches on our space and created our insanely delicious first product, so we definitely experienced a moment of something like, “Are you kidding me?”

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With so many unknowns, we still had to find a way to introduce our Structural Vodka. So instead of opening our doors, we opened our “Wish We Could” window and began producing sanitizer in addition to our vodka and our Ornamental Gin.

We started collaborating with local businesses in ways we had not initially planned. That helped set the tone for ISCO as a collaborative business that is deeply involved in our local community.

PBN: During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, the company teamed up with other local businesses to produce hand sanitizer and collaborated on several special editions of the sanitizer with Frog & Toad to help get the word out. How did these relationships come about?

RUBINSTEIN: Rhode Island is small, and we are proud to be part of such a scrappy, civic-minded small-business community. In the early pandemic days, everyone started calling each other to see how they could best contribute something of value to the situation to try to make things even a little bit better. Everyone wanted to do something, and no one was claiming credit. It was pretty incredible and really showcased how humans come together in dire times.

We never intended to make hand sanitizer, but like many small distilleries across the country who stepped up, it was a way to do something meaningful during a very difficult time. It allowed us to continue to build relationships that will last long beyond the pandemic. We received some additional media coverage that we hadn’t anticipated, which wasn’t a terrible thing for a brand-new business just trying to do its part.

PBN: How does ISCO create its products from scratch and how does this differentiate it?

RUBINSTEIN: We care deeply about each step of our process – from selecting our farm partners to the time we take with our on-site mashing, fermenting, distilling, bottling and packaging, to making sure our “waste” products go back as an input into a farming and livestock cycle.

We always knew from day one that we wouldn’t do something that most other small distilleries do, which is to purchase neutral spirits, the very high-percentage alcohol base material that must be used to make vodka and gin. While it takes an incredible amount of time and effort making our own neutral spirits from products we source, it allows us more control in developing the quality of our products.

There are a lot of benefits to creating everything from scratch on-site, including the ability to experiment with special grains. For example, our Blue Velvet Bourbon was created with two distinct strains of blue corn, an organic one from the Midwest and a “landrace” variety from Mexico.

We recently partnered with The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, so we can do some R&D [research and development] with a revolutionary perennial grain called Kernza. A perennial grain allows farmers to harvest grain like you harvest fruit. It comes back year after year and you don’t have to use as many inputs to grow it or till the fields, which disturbs soil and contributes to things like runoff. We’re in the process of having the grain malted, which we don’t think anyone has done yet.

PBN: The Community-Supported Cocktail Program has the company teaming up with local farmers. How did the program originate?

RUBINSTEIN: We came to this project with a love for spirits and for making things by hand, inspired by our community of artists, chefs, designers, farmers and food-based small businesses. We care a lot about how we source our products, working with small local and regional producers.

The CSC was a natural outgrowth of our love of local food. For 10 weeks this winter, we highlighted a different farm or local food producer each week and created a brand-new cocktail for our subscribers. The Couch Potato, for example, featured produce from Freedom Food Farm; the Octopus Garden used mushrooms from the RI Mushroom Co. and kelp from The Walrus and The Carpenter; and The Flora, for which we used Chi Kitchen’s kimchee. We are always innovating, creating and looking for fun ways to collaborate with those that inspire us – it’s just part of our company’s DNA. We may bring back the CSC next year.

PBN: What is next for the Industrious Spirit Co.?

RUBINSTEIN: Although our three core products remain our Ornamental Gin, Structural Vodka and Blue Velvet Bourbon – which we’re focusing on getting out to more bars, restaurants and liquor stores around the state – we’ve begun releasing a slate of new products from our Experimental Spirits Department (also known as ESD. It’s like ESP, but with booze). They are available only via the Tasting Room in 4-ounce limited-edition bottles. One example is Kismet, an aged specialty spirit, a collaboration between us and Narraganset Brewery using their It’s About Time IPA.

We are also gearing up for an extremely energetic season on the all-outdoor patio with live music and food pop-ups. We have been proud to act as something of a local small-business incubator by providing space for startup food businesses to test their concepts and look forward to continuing that trend.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.

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