The more you talk to Jay Harman, the operations manager of Cisco Brewery on Nantucket, the more you feel that the company is a start-up that became a commune that grew into a business, but is somehow still a commune. (The brewery is named after a nearby beach.)
That explains why Cisco is one of the most popular gathering places on Nantucket. It makes its own wine (10-12 varietals), brews its own beers (14-15 on tap in summer), distills its own fruit vodkas (cranberry, strawberry, and raspberry), and grows the botanicals and herbs for its liquors (Blueberry Mint and Schnapps).
"We do a lot with mint," says Harman, in his sincere deadpan voice.
"We do what we enjoy doing," he continues, referring to this harmony cell that produces the only East-Coast single-malt scotch whisky made in North America (Notch, an award-winner), a one-off oak-aged beer that actually sours the brew ("It's not for everyone," Harman admits), and a trio of rums called Storm Series named for an island tradition, storm parties. Cisco’s best-seller is Whale Tail Pale, its flagship beer. (Tradewind serves Whale Tale and Grey Lady, a Belgian Wit, on board on its flights from Teterboro and White Plains to Nantucket.) It also produces one-off beers such as a strawberry Hefeweizen, a wheat-based beer native to northern Germany, for the pub in summer and a Pumpkin Beer in fall.
The backstory, in short: Dean and Melissa Long bought the property in 1991, thinking they could grow grapes. Impossible on Nantucket, as it turned out. So they turned to sourcing grapes (from California, Oregon, and Washington) to make wine—and still do, producing two rosés, four whites, four reds, and four reserve reds (from the best single barrels).
The brewery entered the picture in 1995 when Randy and Wendy Hudson met Dean and Melissa. Dean and Melissa needed assistants, and Randy and Wendy needed a place to live, so they moved into the space above the winery and on the side pursued their interest in beer. That started when Wendy bought Randy a home-brewing kit. Randy had worked in a bakery on Nantucket, so he had a feel for yeast and grain. He soon threw away the instruction book, converted a pasta-rolling machine into a grain mill, and set off on his own brew-path. The result is Cisco’s line of 28 beers, many of them seasonal (lagers in summer, pumpkin in fall).
It was Dean who saw that distilled alcohol was the final piece of the puzzle in creating a triple-threat amusement park (fermenting, brewing, and distilling). Notch was an ambition—it was going to take five years to realize—but given the investment in a distillery, why not do something that would earn money in the meantime? That's how Triple Eight Vodka—made from organically grown corn, triple distilled, and blended with sand-filtered island water from well #888, a process that gives the vodka a silky palate and smooth finish—came about. Invent on the fly.
The liquers, too, came about on impulse. Cisco created an infusion bar that proved to be popular, leading them to launch the Triple Eight Infusion line.
Despite all the success, Cisco retains its bootstrap character. In the Boston area, the Triple 8 Vodka brand manager, Matt Lambo, still works out of a VW camper. "We fill up the bus and send him to Boston," says Harman.
As for Harman, he's all of a Cisco piece. He summered on the island courtesy of his girlfriend, then met Randy and Wendy, which subsequently induced him to do his senior thesis on developing a brewery on the island. He followed his love to Nantucket after graduation, got a job at Cisco in 1996, and the rest has been destiny.
PS: They're still happily married.
*All Images Courtesy of Cisco Brewers