The epiphany for LeLaneia and Tom Dubay to start their new liqueur business came at a holiday party two years ago. Some mixologists and restaurateurs were in the room, mingling, nibbling on hors d’ oeuvres, sipping a homemade concoction poured from a bottle hand-labeled “LeLaneia’s Lavender Liqueur.” LeLaneia had pulled lavender plants from her garden and steeped them in vodka. She was floored by the reaction. “They tasted it and said ‘Oh, my God, this is magic in a bottle. You’ve got to get this to market,’ ” recalls LeLaneia. “And then they said, ‘Start a company.’ ” Whoa. Dubay and her husband Tom, though flattered by the party reviews, had major trepidations about starting a business. They both had jobs that were fulfilling. LeLaneia still runs a landscape-design firm and has an expertise in plants. Tom, who has an MBA and background in operations, works in the private sector. Though LeLaneia for years made cranberry liqueurs for family and friends during the holidays, she and Tom really didn’t know much about the business of liquor. After the holiday party, the couple, married 13 years after meeting online, organized several focus groups. The samplers gave the thumbs up to other all-natural, plant-infused liqueurs — such as carnations, cucumbers and sumac — devised by LeLaneia (pronounced La-Lane-yah). The Dubays, who live in Hartford, cobbled together $175,000 from personal savings, loans from friends, family and a small business empowerment group. In April, the Hartford Flavor Company was launched in a former stocking-import building on Arbor Street. LeLaneia is the founder, the self-styled “creatrix and infusionary.” Tom is the CEO, aka “lord of the spreadsheets.” There are 10 part-time employees. The company’s first line of liqueurs is called “Wild Moon” and features six flavors — rose, cucumber, lavender, cranberry, and birch and chai spice. The rose blend recently won a silver medal in the 2015 New York World Spirits Competition.The 12-ounce bottles sell for $20 and are distributed to 250 liquor stores and bars in Connecticut. So far, Hartford Flavor Company is producing 4,500 to 7,000 bottles a month and has generated about $125,000 in sales. The Dubays say what distinguishes their fledgling business, believed to be the only distillery in Hartford, from other distillers is that its product is all-natural, botanically infused, gluten and GMO free, with no artificial additives or chemicals. It’s a liqueur for those who are health conscious. “It never dawned on us that there was commercial viability here,” Tom, 51, said. “It sounds like an oxymoron — healthy drinking— because, after all, it is alcohol. That said, if you had the same amount of our product and same amount of another product similar to it, I think the next morning you’d feel a little different with ours, because you don’t get that chemical hangover.” LeLaneia concurs. “People have said to us that we have a new wedge of the alcohol pie by having a truly natural product. We’re not just saying it’s natural. It really has no chemicals.” A few years ago, LeLaneia, 46, developed a reaction to wine and liquor. After years of being a social drinker, she was getting headaches after imbibing. That provided the motivation to develop a gluten- and chemical-free drink that quells those sluggish after effects. The Dubay’s process to making a tasty all-natural liqueur is an elaborate one. Gallons of raw sugar-cane based alcohol (gluten and GMO free) are purchased from the Netherlands. It is then charcoal-filtered to take any impurities out and infused with flavor. For example, 400 pounds of cranberries are infused in a 25-gallon batch; 250 pounds of cucumbers in a 17-gallon batch. Water and organic sugar are added to reduce the 190-proof liquid to 30 or 40 proof. The product is then strained, filtered, bottled and numbered by hand. The aging process can take from three days to three weeks, depending on the type of flavor. “We look for a consistent flavor,” LeLaneia said. “From batch to batch, we want to be consistent. It’s not that hard because we know what we want, and can play with it and get it to its right place.” The Dubays speak proudly of their business’ eco-friendly flavoring niche and its Hartford location. They see a resurgence coming in the Capital City and feel their operation can play a role. The business is now looking to expand its market into New Haven, Fairfield County, and soon into New York or Massachusetts. New flavors are on the horizon, including peach, pumpkin, quince, sage and pink peppercorn. Regular tastings are conducted on site. Hartford Flavor Company is emerging in the mix of promising startups in Greater Hartford. Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of “The Stan Simpson Show” which airs Saturday, 5:30 a.m., on Fox CT — and online at www.foxct.com/stan.
Six years ago, when she was making batches of cranberry liqueur for friends at Christmastime, landscape designer Lelaneia Dubay never dreamed she’d be the co-owner of an emerging city distillery. But a few years later, she began experiencing dietary sensitivity to gluten and certain alcohols and chemicals, which made it difficult for her to enjoy cocktails at restaurants.
She found that she could still enjoy champagne, but sought a way to enhance less-expensive prosecco and sparkling wine with some sort of flavored spirit or cordial. Unhappy with what was already on the market, she went back to her kitchen and crafted a lavender version of her cranberry liqueur, using fresh trimmings from her garden. In 2013, she brought a bottle of the lavender flavor to a party as a hostess gift — a gathering where many of the guests were restaurateurs and mixologists.
“They said, ‘You have to get this to market as soon as possible. You’ve got magic in a bottle. Don’t wait. Do it now,’” Dubay says. She brushed off the idea; neither she nor her husband, Tom, had any experience in the liquor industry. But the next morning, they woke up and talked about it some more.
“I said, ‘You know, if we don’t do this in 20 years, we’ll look back and say, I wonder what would’ve happened,’” Tom Dubay says.
Less than two years after that light-bulb moment, the Dubays are now running Hartford Flavor Company, crafting artisanal botanical liqueurs in an urban production facility on Arbor Street. Their Wild Moon line of 40-proof liqueurs currently features cucumber, lavender, rose, chai spice and birch flavors, with a 15-proof seasonal cranberry version hitting the market this fall. Each flavor is “as organic as we can make it,” Lelaneia said.
When the Dubays decided they would pursue the liqueur business, Lelaneia created about 50 different flavors, sharing the batches with friends and collecting their feedback to narrow the list to 10.
“I really went after something you couldn’t find on the shelves,” she says. “Rose and lavender, I think, are going to be forward-thinking, trending flavors.”
The base alcohol is a gluten-free, GMO-free, sugar cane-based neutral spirit that the Dubays buy in bulk, then filter extensively. Once it’s filtered, it’s ready for the infusion process, with large quantities of fresh cucumbers, rose petals, birch bark, spices and herbs. Each flavor requires different steeping periods — rose is done after three days; birch and chai take up to three weeks. When the infusion finishes, the production team adds sugar, then filters the mixture once again.
With distribution to 190 establishments, Hartford Flavor is bottling 400 to 600 units per order, up to twice a week. But each 375-milliliter bottle is still hand-filled, hand-labeled and individually numbered — an all-hands-on-deck assembly line production. Earlier this month, the company partnered with Connecticut-based distributor Brescome Barton to place its products throughout the state; before that, the Dubays had followed an industry professional’s advice to self-distribute “as long as we can,” Tom says. (The liqueurs are retail-priced around $20 per bottle.)
That work paid off, helping them build important relationships with retailers, and the Wild Moon liqueurs made their way to several cocktail menus this summer.
Abby’s Place in Essex featured the cucumber flavor in a King of Scots drink, coupled with Hendrick’s gin and fresh lime. At the Engine Room in Mystic, a Lathrop Fizz paired the birch flavor with Four Roses bourbon, walnut bitters and ginger ale. And before Unionville’s new Cure Restaurant & Bar opened in August, head mixologist Matt Landry put together an unusual libation with the birch liqueur, green chile-flavored vodka and muddled hops and peaches topped with IPA, served in a smoked glass.
“The line forces you to be creative, and they just work,” said Cure bar manager Nikki Simches by email, adding that the restaurant will use at least three of the Wild Moon liqueurs in its fall cocktails. “The flavors are what’s hot right now. You think gin, you think cucumber. You think chai, you think fall spice. Lavender and rose play into the floral trend.”
Hartford Flavor’s website features nearly four dozen suggested recipes for would-be home mixologists. Simpler combinations match the florals with gin and prosecco, and the birch and chai versions with bourbon and whiskey; others have more intricate flavor profiles, such as pairing rose with tequila, blood orange juice and hibiscus tea reduction.
“The lavender, you can use it in a simple lemonade or a very sophisticated cocktail with seven ingredients,” Tom said.
The couple moved to Hartford’s West End from Glastonbury four years ago, when Lelaneia decided she wanted to get back into a “city vibe” with her landscape business, Dubay Design. She’ll continue to run that business in addition to her role at Hartford Flavor.
“We had no idea it would turn into this,” Tom says of their eventual foray into the liquor industry, “but we thought [the move would] turn into something cool and transformational for us as people.”
They decided the name of their company would reflect their love of the city. The logo features a silhouette of Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon (inspiring the Wild Moon product line name). Diana is accompanied by a deer, the same animal featured at the center of Hartford’s city seal.
“To us, that really symbolized that we wanted to be part of the renaissance Hartford is having, and help to grow that renaissance,” Lelaneia says.
The Dubays hope to have Hartford Flavor Company’s tasting room up and running by the end of October, where visitors will be able to take a tour of the Arbor Street space, sample the liqueurs and purchase bottles. In the next several months, they’ll work on introducing new flavors to the Wild Moon collection, and they’re considering future new product lines.
They’re proud to be part of the city’s inventive growth and development.
“Hartford has had stumbles, but it’s finally moving along into something that could be really great,” Lelaneia says. “There’s so much art here and people doing incredibly creative, innovative things.”
It’s been decades since you could get a fresh bottle of liquor in the capital city, but that’s about to change.
While the recent hit in the state is partial to craft breweries, one business is bucking the trend to sell locally distilled liquor.
The Hartford Flavor Company opened its factory doors less than a month ago, but over the next few weeks the company will rev up and start selling in stores across the state with the label “Wild Moon Liqueurs.” They’re hoping to work up to 60 gallons, or 600 bottles, of liquor per day.
Lelaneia Dubay, who is launching the Hartford Flavor Company, said she wanted a title as creative as the drinks she was cooking up. “I am the creatrix and infusionist at the Hartford Flavor Company.
Dubay began making bottles of cranberry liqueur five years ago for friends, but everyone said she should make it a full-blown business.
The business will sell six flavors: cranberry, cucumber, birch, lavender, rose and chai spice. All of the flavors will be infused with sugar cane-based alcohol, which will sweeten the liquid before it is aged and bottled.
The drinks are all natural, gluten-free and made with real ingredients.
Hartford Flavor is proud to share our Silver Medal from the New York World Spirits Competition! The Rose flavor was our single entry and we believe the award represents testimony of the high quality of the entire line of flavors. Enjoy the handcrafted goodness!
The New York Spirits Competition is the only wine and spirits competition in the world that is associated with the Triple Crown of Competitions ( The San Francisco International Wine Competition and The San Francisco World Spirits Competition). The integrity of The New York World Wine and Spirits Competition starts with the quality, expertise and probity of the judges. And the fact that it takes place right in the heart of New York City. This is the interpretation of integrity. These judges have a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds that facilitates a true, unbias quality of judging of all brands entered. The judges of the 2015 competition were Anthony Dias Blue and Steve Wesler.
Anthony Dias Blue
Anthony is the executive director of The New York World Wine and Spirits Competition and founder of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition as well as the San Francisco International Wine Competition. He is recognized world-wide as a leading food, wine, travel and spirits authority. His work in all media is circulated to more than 20,000,000 consumers each month.
Mr. Blue’s James Beard Award–winning commentaries, The Blue Lifestyle Minute, are broadcast daily on KFWB in Los Angeles and on WCBS radio in New York. He also has a weekly live show The Happy Hour in Los Angeles which airs on KLSX-FM and is devoted to spirits and cocktails. Formerly Wine & Spirits Editor of Bon Appétit magazine, he is owner and Editor-in-Chief of Tasting Panel Magazine and is a frequent contributor to Decanter, Robb Report, Celebrated Living, Virtuoso Life, and C Magazine. Mr. Blue is the author of The Complete Book of Mixed Drinks and its companion, The Complete Book of Spirits. More about Anthony Dias Blue can be found on his company website www.bluelifestyle.com.
Steven founded The RDP Management in 1975 and has produced and managed over 3,000 trade and consumer events and conferences in over twenty-two states. Presently, Steven is the producer and owner of The New York World Wine and Spirits Competition that is held annually at the Javits Center in New York City. Through the guidance of Steven Wesler and the experienced staff of marketing specialists, he has become a leading authorities in all aspects of the trade show industry, including creating new shows; show management and operations; event marketing; to the ownership and management of the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus, NJ.
More information about the competition can be found here: http://www.nyworldwineandspiritscompetition.com/medals-that-are-awarded
On May 4th Hartford Flavor Company celebrated its official launch at the very elegant Hartford Club in downtown Hartford. 10 of the most talented mixologists in the Hartford area competed in a cocktail competition featuring five of the six Wild Moon flavors. In the end, Antonio Hill of Front Street Bistro won judge’s choice for Hollywood Glamour and Justin Morales of Infinity Hall won people’s choice for The Rose.
All proceeds from the event went to support Knox Inc., a Hartford-based non-profit that dedicates its time and resources to building cleaner neighborhoods in Hartford.
On April 9th, 2015, HFC officially cut the ribbon at its production space at 30 Arbor St. in Hartford. The mayor, local business owners, as well as fans of HFC’s Wild Moon liquors were in attendance to joyfully usher in this new era!
For more pictures from the event, please visit Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra’s Flickr page.
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