As he uncorked a bottle of the first batch of his Luca Mariano bourbon one afternoon last week, Northville’s Francesco S. Viola was unwrapping a family treasure that was more than five years in the making.
From the distinctive, eye-catching label aborning the uniquely-shaped bottle to the down-to-the-smallest-detail ingredients in the spirits inside, the newest addition to the world’s bourbon market had Viola’s vision and signature written all over it.
“I take pride in everything I do,” Viola said, sitting in a sun-soaked chair inside the bar section of Plymouth’s Cantoro Italian Market. “I could have had this batch of bourbon distilled in a shorter time than I did, and I could have distilled it in Michigan. But I want it to be the best, so I took it down to Danville, Ky., which is the only place in the world where first-class bourbon can be distilled.”
Viola’s passion for distilling spirits started in, of all places, the garage of his Northville home.
In 2010, using an old-school still inherited from his grandfather, the son of Italian-born parents tweaked and tested recipes — unaware that his hobby was against the law.
“One afternoon I got my smoker out and we had some neighbors over for a meal,” Viola recalled. “Well, I had them take some shots off the still. One of my neighbors tells me, ‘You know this is illegal, right?’ Being a first-generation Italian-American, I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. Honestly, I didn’t believe him.
“The next day, I called my lawyer and asked him to look it up. He said, ‘I don’t even have to look it up. What you’re doing is illegal.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You can make beer and wine in your home, but not distilled spirits?'”
Hooked by his distilling hobby, Viola acted immediately to get on the right side of the law. He endured the tedious task of obtaining a distilling license and continued to experiment with bourbon recipes.
“My grandfather’s still had two big pots, like ones used to cook tomato sauce, with a lid on it and a copper pipe coming out of it to let the steam out,” he said. It was dangerous because we had an open flame and we used flour and water to seal it so vapors from alcohol didn’t escape because if it did, it’s highly flammable, and could blow up.
“We eventually bought a proper still that was totally safe.”
“Back in 2010, believe it or not, there wasn’t a lot of information out there on the internet on this,” he remembered. “We didn’t know how to handle it at first, but now the government actually offers a program on it.
“I finally got my license in 2013, and in 2014 we started using barrels to age our recipes for three months at first. We really started to get dialed in. We ended up doing a test launch in Nashville, Tenn., and it did well. We sold 60 cases right away. It showed a lot of promise, but I wasn’t happy with the product. It was still green and young, and I wanted to do something of quality that I could be proud of.”
In 2014, Viola said his entire distillery program went “top shelf.”
“Distiller friends we had met in Danville said if you’re going to go this route, you need to either build your own distillery (in Kentucky), which would require spending money on land and equipment, or partnering up with an existing distiller, which is what we did. I’m still the supervisor and I’m coming up with the recipes. It’s no different than me having my own employees.”
Already an achiever
Viola was no stranger to entrepreneurial success at the time of his all-in dive into the bourbon-making industry.
While a sophomore at Michigan State University in the mid-1990s, he started a shirt-printing business for fraternities, sororities and other student organizations. By the end of the semester, Viola had orders pouring in daily.
In 2003, with “just $50 in my pocket”, Viola took over a screen-printing business — Plymouth-based Versatrans — and said he has since built it into one of the most successful businesses of its kind in the world.
The attention to detail that fueled Versatrans’ success was duplicated by Viola in his new venture.
“A couple of months after I received my license, I sought out some experts who helped me improve my recipes with science and technology. With inspiration provided from my grandfather and advanced distilling techniques offered by these guys, I was able to develop a unique product that resulted from a lot of hard work.”
It’s all in the details
VIola is an encyclopedia of distillery knowledge.
He explained how the barrels that store the bourbon throughout the fermenting years — he has batches scheduled for release over the next four years — need to be made of aged American oak and that the Kentucky climate is essential for the bourbon to ferment properly.
“It’s comparable to making wine in the Napa Valley or Tuscany, Italy,” he said. “The distilleries are built in hilly areas so that the wind can blow through the rick houses. If the temperature drops below 50 degrees, it stops the aging process, which is why Michigan is too cold. It may snow a couple days a year in Kentucky, but by noon, the sun melts the snow. You can’t recreate the climate anywhere else.”
In the hottest months, the heated barrels sponge in the liquid they hold; when the milder weather arrives, the liquid is pushed back out, taking flavor from the barrel with it.”
One of the tricky parts about the entire process, Viola explained, is tasting the bourbon before it is placed in the barrels for the minimum four-year stay.
“It’s kind of a risk because it may taste good right off the still, but you have to predict if will taste good four, five, six or seven years later. You make the best calculations you can based on the information you have.”
Francesco S. Viola
Viola revealed that getting the packaging right is just as important as what’s inside the bottle.
“If someone goes into a store and isn’t familiar with the bourbons, they’ll probably look at the label and say, ‘Hey, this looks good. Let’s give it a chance, roll the dice.’ If they like the taste, they’ll probably buy a second bottle, or a third. But you have to get them to buy the first one, which is why the packaging is so important.”
Viola enlisted Northville-based Flowdesign to handle the label and bottle designs.
“The owner is Dan Metuche … we call him the Leonardo of labels and the Picasso of glass — he’s that good,” Viola said.
The Luca Mariano bourbon was scheduled to start hitting store shelves this week.
Viola has orchestrated a lavish launch party on April 26 at Cantoro’s that will include a band playing music written by Viola and his friend, Kenny Fuller.
“In June, we will be releasing Marcisona Rye, another bourbon, and yet another bourbon a year later … my signature bourbon,” Viola said. “They’re all different recipes. The price point is $44.95 a bottle. For most other distillers in our category, bottles go for $60 to $80. We’re keeping the price down so that people don’t just try it once. We want them to stay with it.”
Contact Ed Wright at email@example.com or 517-375-1113.