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Hemp is an Integral Part of the Spirit-Making Process at a New SoNo Distillery

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Ami-Lynn Bakshi, partner at the new 1420 Distillery, the only distillery in the world that infuses its whiskeys with hemp seed, Wednesday, January 30, 2019, in South Norwalk, Conn. 1420 Distillery offers an open house Sunday which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Connecticut’s failure to ratify the 18th amendment, making it one of two states to strike down Prohibition.

Ted Dumbauld is not someone you’d expect to be a cannabis proponent.

The former nuclear submarine officer and a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, who also has an MBA from MIT and is a former Wall Street trader, has never been a fan of the plant’s recreational use.

“I’m not a smoker of cannabis. I’m not a demonstrator trying to create social change. I view this as a business opportunity,” he says. “It seems like society now recognizes that this cannabis plant is not this evil thing that people thought it was or were led to believe all throughout my childhood. … It’s a great plant and it has lots and lots of uses, including making some delicious distilled spirits.”

Dumbauld is co-owner of SoNo 1420, the state’s newest distillery and the first in the world, as far as he knows, to use hemp as an integral part of the spirit-making process.

Opened in February in a converted warehouse space in South Norwalk, the distillery has a line of spirits made with hemp, the non-active variety of cannabis. The 1420 BBN, a bourbon-style spirit, is made from 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent milled hemp seed. “You get a lot of flavor with our bourbon, which is associated with other bourbons because 80 to 90 percent of what we’re using is typically what’s used in other bourbons,” Dumbauld says. But the addition of the 10 percent of hemp seed gives it unique characteristics and prevents the beverage from technically being bourbon or whiskey. “Hemp seed is an oil seed, so it has a lot more oil associated with it than with corn, which is almost 100 percent carbohydrates,” Dumbauld says. “So you get a different mouthfeel. You get a fuller-body mouthfeel associated with the whiskey that we’re making.”

The distillery’s three gins are flavored with terpenes, the name for aroma and flavor molecules found in essential oils of hemp and other plants, including terpenes extracted via vapor infusion from hemp flower. Different terpenes are associated with different moods or feelings by aromatherapy and herbal medicine enthusiasts, and the gins at SoNo 1420 are crafted to evoke various feelings. For instance, according to its description, the Sindica Midnight New American Gin “boasts a medley of terpenes including myrcene and linalool that customers describe as a relaxing, whole-body experience.”

Dumbauld was introduced to the cannabis industry by chance. In 2015, he was recruited by a friend to be the CEO of Curaleaf, one of the state’s four growers of medical marijuana. The firm was ultimately sold to a larger company which adopted the Curaleaf name.

While the medical marijuana industry grew, so did the hemp-farming movement. As restrictions on growing the crop in the U.S. were loosened, Dumbauld attended a conference about hemp farming at the University of Kentucky. In the evening he found himself drinking the local specialty: bourbon.

“One night after one too many bourbons I said, wait a second, there might be a huge opportunity here,” he recalls. “What happens if you take this seed of this plant and use it to make a bourbon?”

He then studied the art of distilling and partnered with Ami-Lynn Bakshi, who has many years of experience in the beverage industry working for Diageo, the beer and liquor giant. Together they opened SoNo 1420. The distillery’s name is inspired by South Norwalk and the state Senate’s 14-to-20 vote against alcohol prohibition in 1919. Of course, the fact that “420” is part of the distillery’s name is no coincidence.

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University