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Once the driest state, Kansas could become a microdistillery mecca

Microdistilleries are growing like wheat in Kansas.



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Dickson's product has just five ingredients: lime juice, cane sugar, filtered water, tequila and orange liqueur (which is now contract-distilled by the neighboring Good Spirits Distilling). The result is a taste that evokes frosty glasses rather than pre-mixed tubs gathering dust in a forgotten aisle of the liquor store.

By October 2010, Dickson's operation needed more room. He settled on the 10,000-square-foot space in Olathe that now houses the manufacturing line, storage room, test kitchen and offices. The company took off in 2011, with sales growing sevenfold, in part because of a contract with Sam's Club and Wal-Mart. Dickson even entertained a serious buyout offer from what he calls "a major, major corporation."

"If we don't get another offer and I can come to work in shorts and flip-flops for the next 20 years, that's fine with me," Dickson says. "But if somebody bought me out, I'd get a sailboat, and you'd find me all over the world diving."

He pauses for a second.

"Then I'd start another company that helps seed small businesses."

By the end of last year, Shark Attack margaritas were in 15 states, a number that Dickson expects to nearly double in 2012. And next month, Dickson launches his second frozen product: a hard lemonade — a clear hard lemonade.

"Why do I need to add yellow color if it's not yellow?" Dickson says. Two additional flavors are planned for this summer.

While Dickson is Kansas' de facto liquor ambassador to other states, Dark Horse Distillery hopes to attract tourists to the Midwest. Magerl calls that a winning strategy. He believes that the expansion of microdistilleries, like microbreweries, is more about increasing awareness than overcoming opposition.

"People thought you could have a large distillation operation or a still in the backwoods — nobody thought there was anything between," he says. "The concept that there's a limited urban-hipster demographic that is going to appreciate quality and flavor is rapidly fading as a stereotype. The idea of being stuck in the hinterlands and not having choices is no longer really applicable."

A plumber who now runs a frozen-margarita business, the siblings who left behind successful careers to start a distillery from scratch — Shark Attack and Dark Horse are rewriting their state's liquor lore, long after Carry Nation came to save Kansans from themselves. And they're leading the way for other microdistilleries. Regardless of what happens during the latest legislative session in Topeka, Kansas is only going to get wetter.

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