By Emma Kent // Photos by Lauren Wood
On a late spring afternoon in May, Chand Harlow, Rob Forster and Tom Alexander are in the process of making a new batch of Wonderbird gin. The mash is being transferred to the fermenter, where it will stay for the next week or so. Forster is peeling Meyer lemons. Their first shipment of gin is bottled and packed up, waiting by the door to be picked up and distributed to liquor stores, bars and restaurants across Mississippi.
They’re making Mississippi’s first grain-to-glass gin in a building in the middle of a field in Taylor, and two years of dream-chasing is finally paying off. Before all of that, though, they had to get their gin recipe just right.
“We wanted to design a gin that wouldn’t be too different from what gin-lovers like,” Harlow said. “We wanted to make something that was a little bit more approachable but still traditional.”
Wonderbird gin is made out of rice, hence their “grain to glass” slogan. They’re currently using jasmine rice from Two Brooks Rice Farm in the Mississippi Delta.
“It provides a wonderful base,” Harlow said. “We borrowed a lot from the Japanese art of sake-making.”
All three of the men who make up the Wonderbird team are interested in and inspired by Japanese culture, and they wanted to channel that in their gin-making process. They experimented with different bases like corn and wheat, but in the end, rice was the clear winner.
“We fell in love with the rice,” Forster said.
Plus, with high-quality rice available locally, the choice to use it was a no-brainer.
Wonderbird’s local emphasis doesn’t stop at the gin’s rice base. As they developed their recipe, they had a forager come and survey their property to tell them what they could use from their own backyard – literally. They ended up incorporating red clover and pine from the distillery property into the gin’s botanical bouquet.
Harlow, Forster and Alexander started Wonderbird Spirits in 2017.
Before embarking on their new adventure, Forster was a corporate lawyer working in Los Angeles, Harlow was working in finance in New York City and Alexander was working as an engineer in Austin.
“We had all kind of gone down different career paths, but we had all decided to become distillers and make that career change — a hard left turn,” Forster said.
Alexander and Forster were college roommates who had gone in opposite directions after college, but they had always talked about one day going into business together. Forster and Harlow had both relocated to Mississippi before starting Wonderbird, and were introduced by mutual friends. When they reached out to Alexander, he moved from Austin to join them.
The first year was spent building the distillery. The plot of land off Old Taylor Road was just an empty field when the trio found it. Now, they’ve transformed it into an open, airy and inviting space in which to work and for people to experience their gin. The distillery features a cozy lounge and bar area in the front with the large production area in the back. Visitors can sit in the bar area and taste gin or drink a craft beer.
The building’s towering windows let light stream in, and on the day we visited, the doors and windows were open, letting the spring breeze blow through.
Harlow, Forster and Alexander are adamant about wanting visitors to sit and stay a while. They don’t want people to come in, tour, taste and leave. They don’t want it to be a rushed process.
“We want people to relax,” Forster said.
The second year was spent planning, branding and testing until they got the gin and its packaging just right. Producing the gin is a lengthy and hands-on process, but the team at Wonderbird wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We really wanted to make a product we could be proud of,” Forster said
The gin begins as a grain mash. The mash, along with koji mold spores, is fermented for 5 to 10 days, and then the mash is moved to the still for distilling. The koji spores produce enzymes that help during the fermentation process, and they grow them on-site at the Wonderbird distillery. They’re also the namesake of the distillery cat.
The mash is distilled three times to create each botanical, which give the gin its flavor and aromas. The first run through the still extracts the alcohol from the mash in what’s known as a “stripping run,” and then it’s run through again in a “spirit run.” The spirit run creates the base spirit for the gin. Finally, the third run through the still distills the alcohol through botanicals. Those botanicals are later blended to create the gin that gets bottled.
“It provides us better control over the end product and, we think, creates a better quality product,” Forster said.
They developed about 80 different recipes before finally landing on recipe number 61, which is why you’ll see “61” on the Wonderbird bottle. The result is a smooth, floral gin featuring an Italian variety of Juniper, fresh Meyer lemon peel and peppercorns, among other botanicals.
The Wonderbird team wanted the gin to be enjoyable both in cocktails and by itself. They recommend drinking it in gin-forward cocktails like a French 75 or gin martini.
“You don’t want to go muddling it up with a lot of other ingredients,” Forster said.
In the process of creating their signature flavor profile, the trio developed a distillation library so that they could go back and reference each botanical as they worked, but also for any future seasonal or special blends they may create.
“It was key to really go ahead and do the work to build the library,” Forster said.
And that’s the reason they landed on making gin in particular — the potential for exploration in creating the spirit’s flavor. They also saw a need in the craft cocktail and spirit world, where gin hasn’t really been a focus.
They all love bourbon, but it takes too long to see a return on that investment, and they thought briefly about making vodka, but there isn’t as much creativity involved in producing vodka in terms of flavor. The point is to make it essentially flavorless.
“We were all really into gin,” Harlow said. “It allows for a lot of creativity.”
The only requirement for gin to be gin is that it features juniper.
“Other than that the world is your oyster,” Harlow said.
For as quickly as they all jumped into the business, coming up with the name, Wonderbird, took a long time.
“We had to give each other time to explore and pitch ideas,” Forster said.
After a lot of brainstorming, they decided to take a break and let the name issue lie for a while, but when Forster visited Alexander at home one afternoon, inspiration struck.
Forster noticed that Alexander had been flipping through a coffee table book about birds, and having recently been reading about birds himself, they started chatting about them. Then, as Forster put it, “Wonderbird” just sort of happened.
The name also hints at the leap of faith the three men have taken to make their business happen.
By the second week in May, about one week after they officially opened their doors, the first batch of Wonderbird gin has already sold out.
It’s an exciting time for the three men, but they admit they’ve been so busy they haven’t had time to really step back and reflect on all of the work they’ve done.
“When we do, I’m very happy about where we are,” Harlow said. “It does feel surreal.”
Visitors can stop by the Wonderbird distillery for tastings and tours Wednesday through Friday from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. The distillery is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 6 p.m. Appointments for private tours and tastings can also be scheduled by calling the distillery at (601) 319-7596. The space can also be rented for private events or weddings.