By Nan McCreary
Ogden, Utah, is a small city with a big, colorful past. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, Ogden transformed from a lawless frontier town to a rough and tumble railroad hub, to a center for bootleggers and speakeasies during Prohibition. The infamous 25th street, called “Two-Bit 25th” because any form of debauchery could be had for two bits, was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, opium dens and bootleg booze.
Today, Ogden is rich with heritage, live music, arts and outdoor activities, and, contrary to its notorious past, is home to a heavy population of Mormons. In 2009, despite a sizable culture that bans alcohol, two entrepreneurs decided to open a distillery — only the second in the state — and capitalize on Ogden’s unique history.
“Our first product, Underground Herbal Spirit, was named for the tunnels off main street that were used to move contraband during the late 1800s and early 1900s,” co-owner and CEO Steve Conlin told Beverage Master Magazine. “Ogden was a notorious, wild place back then. With the railroads, it was the crossroads of the west. We pay homage to that with our logo, a circle with a cross, and a small dot ‘on the map’ that represents this era.”
According to Conlin, Underground Herbal Spirit was highly inspired by the success of Jägermeister. Yet, with a mixture of 33 herbs, spices and flavors, it also reflects the odd assortment of characters that traveled through Ogden in the early days. “I love the idea that you could have all the herbs from around the world coming through Ogden and making a concoction,” Conlin said.
Underground Herbal Spirit includes a mellow blend of cassia, angostura, anise, cardamom, gentian, yarrow, wormwood, mate, guarana, ginseng, molasses, orange oil, lemon oil, spearmint, pure cane sugar, agave and plum. While the drink is technically a liqueur, it has less than the required 2.5% sugar content by weight, which allows the herbs and spices to come through for a sweet, complex flavor experience.
Ogden’s Own enjoyed immediate success with its Underground Herbal Spirit. Not only did it win a Double-Gold Medal in a San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010, it was also selected as the Best Liqueur in the Americas at the Spirits of the Americas Competition in 2012. The beverage was extremely popular with consumers, too.
“People ask me why I would start a liquor business in Utah,” Conlin said, “and the answer is because I had distribution. Utah is a control state, where liquor is sold only in state stores, so I had access to the market right off the bat. At the time, as long as you had a good solid product, the state stores were happy to sell it for you. We deliver our products to the warehouse, and they place it in all  of their stores.”
Ogden’s Own followed Underground Herbal’s success with a 2012 release of Five Wives Vodka. The beverage, made from Utah mountain spring water, is a 100% distilled corn-spirit and gluten-free. The spring, hidden in beautiful Ogden Canyon, is inaccessible by vehicle, so the water is hiked out five gallons at a time.
Five Wives Vodka got off to a rather inauspicious beginning: the bars in neighboring Idaho wanted it, but the state refused, saying the name was offensive to women. Ogden’s Own, seeing a public relations opportunity to gain “notoriety for being bad in Idaho,” took the story to outlets such as NPR and NBC’s Today Show. As a result, Ogden’s Own captured the attention of a high-powered Washington D.C. attorney who wanted to use their case to clear up some constitutional issues involving interstate sales. “The attorney wrote an eight-page letter to the state of Idaho,” Conlin said, “and within 30 minutes, they called me and invited me to send the product.”
Conlin claimed their intention was never to poke fun at women or Mormons. “We liked the alliteration, like ‘Five Guys Burgers,’ and the idea that anyone could interpret the name with their own baggage, whatever that was,” he said. “Five Wives could be a group of girlfriends or a knitting circle for all we know. Plus, we found a fun image to use for the label.”
Today, Five Wives is a Utah favorite and was voted by Salt Lake City Weekly as the “Best New Spirit” in Utah for 2012. It has won silver medals in the San Francisco and Denver International Spirit competitions as well as the Spirits of the Americas competition.
After Five Wives, Ogden’s Own launched its Porter series of hand-crafted flavored whiskeys: Porter’s Fire, Porter’s Peach, Porter’s Apple, Porter’s Huckleberry and Porter’s Small Batch Rye.
“We wanted to expand,” Conlin said. “Fireball had just come out, so we decided to create a local cinnamon-flavored whiskey. Our Fire is not as hot as Fireball; it’s more natural cinnamon with a cinnamon roll finish with vanilla. We like to take a lot of things that are popular and give them our own little twist in a way that we think makes them more palatable. A lot of people who don’t like whiskey like ours.”
The Porter series is named for Orrin Porter Rockwell, a notorious gunslinger and wanted man. It is said that Rockwell killed more outlaws than Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Tom Horn, and Bat Masterson combined, earning him the menacing title, the “Destroying Angel.” Paradoxically, he was also a devout church member and bodyguard of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, and Brigham Young, a Mormon prophet.
“There’s this weird mentality in Utah where the Mormons all partook of alcohol before Prohibition, but then they laid down the law and banned it,” Conlin told Beverage Master Magazine. “We like to poke fun at this paradox without being vicious.”
The Porter labels carry the menacing face of Porter Rockwell, similar to that on a wanted poster from the mid-1800s. According to Ogden’s Own website, Porter’s Fire “combines the smoothness of Canadian whiskey with the most divine ingredients to deliver you one hell of a well-balanced flavor. Sweet, but not sugary, berry and spicy, but not too hot, Porter’s Fire captures the passion of its namesake and the carefree spirit of the old west.”
In 2017, Ogden’s Own began producing Madam Pattrini Gin, made from juniper, bergamot, coriander, cardamom, Nigerian ginger and Sicilian lemon. It’s a small run of fewer than 1000 bottles at a time, with all bottles numbered by batch. In 2019, the gin was selected as the Best Compound Gin in the United States at the World Gin Awards in London.
What makes this gin especially unique is the namesake: Madam Pattrini was actually B. Morris Young, the son of Brigham Young, who performed in drag as an opera singer in northern and central Utah venues from 1895 to the 1900s.
“Our goal is to bring historical figures back to life, back into the consciousness of Utah,” Conlin said. “It’s funny, but a photo of Madam Pattrini was recently found hidden in the church archives.”
While Ogden’s Own staff has fun bringing the ghosts of the past to life, they take their distilling seriously. All products are corn-based and gluten-free.
“Our philosophy is to produce quality spirits at a reasonable price,” Conlin said. “Lots of people overprice their products just because they’re ‘craft.’ It serves us best to keep our price low.”
This philosophy has certainly paid off. Ogden’s own has grown from producing 600 cases in 2009 to 20,000 in 2019. According to Conlin, “The market is the 21 to 35-year-old drinker who is spending money on a craft product — a unique product — and has a sense of humor and wants something they can talk about when they go to events.”
Currently, Ogden’s Own has eight employees: four in sales and four in production. Overseeing production is co-founder Tim Smith, who started the Ogden’s Own ball rolling when he took his home-made hooch to Conlin’s mortgage company for advice on marketing. After “bootstrapping” their way from what was basically a small garage to a 6,400 square-foot facility, the partners now have distribution in states including Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada, Michigan and parts of Southern California.
“It’s been a step-by-step process,” Conlin said. “You have to have a distributor if the state doesn’t do it for you. You have to knock on a lot of doors. I call it shaking hands and kissing babies. We’re out politicking, meeting people, telling them about our product, doing the ‘Costco taste test,’ one by one.”
While the people at Ogden’s Own have worked their way up to become a significant presence in Utah, they now have their sights on nationwide recognition. The distillery recently raised $2 million from fans, partially via an online crowdfunding campaign, which is enabling them to move into a new 32,000 square-foot facility in April. Their new home will house a full bar, a massive production area, new offices, and an amphitheater for live music events.
“We are ramping up considerably,” Conlin told Beverage Master Magazine. “A year from now, we will be a much different company. Our fans have enabled us to take a whole new approach to growing. As we do, we plan to be very transparent and honest and ensure that our expenditures make sense. It’s up to us to parlay this into nationwide success.”
As Ogden’s Own Distillery moves into the future, we will no doubt be hearing more from them, along with the ghosts who once roamed 25th street.
For more information on Ogden’s Own Distillery, visit https://www.ogdensown.com/