Forward Brands Distillery Gears Up for Debut in Historic Beet Sugar Factory
Carefully padding over chunky gravel and a swirl of fluffy white pigeon feathers in his cavernous warehouse, Ray Klemp stops short of a big pile of rubble and looks up. Four stories above, past massive riveted beams and partially crumbled floors, a bright blue slice of Arizona sky gleams through a hole in the roof.
"This is in better shape than it used to be," he says, optimistically. "The heart of any old building is the roof."
Where most people would see a decrepit five-story building wrapped in chain-link fence and a menacing spiral of razor wire, Klemp envisions a grand project that will put Glendale on the microdistillery map.
This 64,000-square-foot red brick and steel building, situated just south of Glendale Avenue on 52nd Avenue, is the circa-1906 Beet Sugar Factory, and it's been languishing in a state of disrepair since its last tenant closed up shop in 1985.
To many area residents, it's a quietly mysterious presence looming over Downtown Glendale, but soon it will be at the heart of a city redevelopment initiative called the Centerline District.
Although Klemp humbly calls himself "the informal advisor and landlord," it's his longtime dream–inspired by the Guinness Building in Dublin–to make it a space for the manufacture and distribution of vodka, tequila, gin and specialty liqueurs. It will tentatively open in January.
Booze is the family biz, after all. Klemp owns AZ Wine Co., a wine retail shop with locations in Scottsdale and Carefree, and his daughters, Lauren and Morgan Klemp, are the founders of Forward Brands LLC, which produces Arroyo Vodka and BB's Apple Pye liqueur, and will soon come out with tequila, gin and flavored vodkas. The Klemp sisters started their company in 2007, teaming up with distiller John Miller.
"We first launched with the Devoured event at the beginning of the year, and our focus has been pouring at events to get our brand in front of our local audience," Lauren says. "We've had a great response so far."
She adds that her aim at the moment is to increase local distribution for Arroyo, which is available at celebrated chef-driven restaurants such as Binkley's, Christopher's and Rancho Pinot, at upscale resorts like The Phoenician and at AZ Wine Co.
This spring, after completing the first phase of structural enhancements to the Beet Sugar Factory (including a new roof, reinforcements to the walls and floor and a revamped parking lot), Forward Brands' distillery and bottling operations will move into the space, upgrading their production from 200 bottles an hour to 6,000. Along with Forward Brands' in-house production, the company also has a deal with a major Mexican producer to bottle, package and ship tequila; the Mexican company will reciprocate with Arroyo Vodka.
Outside in the parking lot, there will be a mobile tasting room and retail shop selling liquor as well as local artisanal food products. Landscaping will include a botanical garden with herbs used for distilling, and 80 agave plants to brighten the front entrance. Klemp even plans to age oak wood for barrels that will be used on the premises.
Phase Two of the project will include construction of a kitchen and cocktail lounge on the fourth floor, where they'll offer classes in mixology and pairing food with cocktails. They'll also host tours of the facility, with bird's-eye views down into the main production area of the distillery.
Klemp says he won't change the look of the Beet Sugar Building, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. He's even had his plans approved by a historian. He points out that it's one of three major historic buildings in Maricopa County, along with Hayden Flour Mill in Tempe (which is currently being redeveloped) and the Mesa Citrus Growers Association plant (which closed in 2010).
The 105-year-old building got its name from its original use in the earliest days of Glendale's history, when sugar beets grown in the area were processed into sugar onsite. Drought destroyed the beet crops and led to the factory's closure; later, it housed a beer distribution center, the Squirt Bottling Company and Marusho Soy Sauce Company.
Philip Ringer bought the building in 1935, and it stayed with the Ringer-Morgan family for decades. Klemp partnered with them in 1995 and unsuccessfully attempted to redevelop it into artist's lofts, retail spaces and a rock-climbing gym. He eventually purchased the property from his partners in 2009 and presented his distillery plans to Glendale officials last year.
Renovation has been a long time coming.
"The city government really wants it to happen this time. What helps is there's a user, so they're facilitating the process," he says. "This is really going to be an anchor."
Needless to say, when the Beet Sugar Factory finally does reopen–after many years of planning–Klemp will be ready for the celebratory toast.