The emergence of Black-owned spirit brands has been a revelation for the adult beverages industry, but a precious few of those entities can boast of a true farm-to-bottle product. New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery, a family-run operation that carries on a strong legacy of distilled spirits, is one such brand that is bringing the concept to fruition with a wide selection of offerings for almost every palette.
New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery (NESW) is the brainchild of Robert Patton-Spruill, an independent filmmaker, college professor, and businessman who was raised in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Patton-Spruill founded New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery in 2015 in Winchester, N.H., a small village town in the southwestern portion of the state.
CASSIUSLIFE had the pleasure of speaking with NESW’s current owners, sisters Alisa Lawrence and Nilaja Young. Along with their husbands, Karl Lawrence & Kenny Young, the quartet purchased NESW in 2020 from Patton-Spruill, who is a cousin to the sisters. In our chat, Mrs. Lawrence and Mrs. Young shared sincere enthusiasm regarding their new venture and how they hope to expand NESW far beyond New England in the coming years.
“We got involved in the the business of distilling during the pandemic when everyone was on pause and at that time, our cousin Rob (Patton-Spruill) wanted to sell the business,” began Lawrence. “He wanted to create a legacy for the family in hopes that someone would take up the mantle.”
She continued, “Our mom was really instrumental in that and pushing us to do it. She gave us our first $25,000 towards the business, like ‘let’s get to this, let’s do this” and we did it. We came in 2020 and it’s been on ever since. We learned how to make the liquor and the operations. It wasn’t easy but we got it.”
The sisters were both clear in that their foray into the world of adult beverages was a blitz of new information, rules, and regulations. Entering into a field where neither had any experience other than what they could learn from their cousin was a move most would never dare to attempt.
“It was really like a baptism by fire,” Mrs. Young added, echoing the sentiments of her sister. “We learned the process of the business within a week. We were here every day with Rob, learning what we could and here we are.”
Lawrence, who has a background in entertainment and marketing, and Young, who hails from the world of sales and healthcare, couldn’t have been further away from the world they were entering. Lawrence’s husband was also in marketing and along with their spouses, the four put their heads together to make NESW a viable business despite the steep and varied learning curve.
With the assistance of Lawrence’s husband with the distilling and Young’s husband helping with the distillery’s mechanical aspects, the sisters poured much of their energy into being the faces and creative minds behind NESW.
“While it wasn’t music marketing or pharmaceutical sales, it was still a product that needed to be marketed and sold, so we approached the business using what we’ve already done before and applied to NESW,” Lawrence said. “We approached it like a music act’s rollout with the fact that there are very specific rules about the products we were taking to market.”
Black-owned spirit brands are being established at a rapid clip but these entities are still widely underrepresented in the business of adult beverages. The looming elephant in the room is that the industry still looks a certain way but the sisters are not daunted by that divide. Instead, they’ve found a way to thrive despite it.
“We had a good head start. Rob was able to give us a really great foundation by having something as unique as an actual distillery. And not just the distillery, but the tasting room as well. We have our own incubator. Here we have our own focus group, if you will, every single weekend,” Lawrence shared.
Lawrence went on to add that other local distillers in New Hampshire embraced NESW and became mentors to the sisters as they navigated their way into a full operation. That sense of community and collaboration gave way to a growing line of products from NESW that they’re hoping to bring to markets outside of New England.
NESW carries around 20 products, including its Ashuelot Gin, an American-style gin with eight unique botanicals. This bottle won the bronze medal at the 2022 San Francisco Worlds Spirits Competition. NESW’s Clark & Chesterfield whiskey lineup boasts an American Single Malt Whisky, which took home the silver medal at the 2022 San Francisco Worlds Spirits Competition as well. NESW’s Ashuelot Vodka also won the silver medal from the American Distilling Institute.
Other products include a high-rye bourbon whiskey, a chocolate whiskey, a maple whiskey, three types of rum, a quartet of ready-to-drink classic cocktails, and Young’s in-house barbecue sauce made with a touch of the brand’s maple whiskey.
At the close of our conversation, we pointedly asked the sisters where they would like to see New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery in the coming years. In unison, they answered with the same charming confidence displayed throughout our all-too-brief conversation.
“We want to be internationally known,” Lawrence answered with immediacy, with her sister chiming in adding that they hope the business continues to grow steadily as it has since 2020. “And we want the world to know that this is a true family business.”
On NESW’s website, there is a store locator for those interested in trying out the products while in New Hampshire. In addition, the distillery has a tasting room that CASSIUSLIFE hopes to visit soon for a deeper conversation and examination of all NESW has to offer.
To learn more about New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery, click here.
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