Six years ago, when she was making batches of cranberry liqueur for friends at Christmastime, landscape designer Lelaneia Dubay never dreamed she'd be the co-owner of an emerging city distillery. But a few years later, she began experiencing dietary sensitivity to gluten and certain alcohols and chemicals, which made it difficult for her to enjoy cocktails at restaurants.
She found that she could still enjoy champagne, but sought a way to enhance less-expensive prosecco and sparkling wine with some sort of flavored spirit or cordial. Unhappy with what was already on the market, she went back to her kitchen and crafted a lavender version of her cranberry liqueur, using fresh trimmings from her garden. In 2013, she brought a bottle of the lavender flavor to a party as a hostess gift — a gathering where many of the guests were restaurateurs and mixologists.
"They said, 'You have to get this to market as soon as possible. You've got magic in a bottle. Don't wait. Do it now,'" Dubay says. She brushed off the idea; neither she nor her husband, Tom, had any experience in the liquor industry. But the next morning, they woke up and talked about it some more.
"I said, 'You know, if we don't do this in 20 years, we'll look back and say, I wonder what would've happened,'" Tom Dubay says.
Less than two years after that light-bulb moment, the Dubays are now running Hartford Flavor Company, crafting artisanal botanical liqueurs in an urban production facility on Arbor Street. Their Wild Moon line of 40-proof liqueurs currently features cucumber, lavender, rose, chai spice and birch flavors, with a 15-proof seasonal cranberry version hitting the market this fall. Each flavor is "as organic as we can make it," Lelaneia said.
When the Dubays decided they would pursue the liqueur business, Lelaneia created about 50 different flavors, sharing the batches with friends and collecting their feedback to narrow the list to 10.
"I really went after something you couldn't find on the shelves," she says. "Rose and lavender, I think, are going to be forward-thinking, trending flavors."
The base alcohol is a gluten-free, GMO-free, sugar cane-based neutral spirit that the Dubays buy in bulk, then filter extensively. Once it's filtered, it's ready for the infusion process, with large quantities of fresh cucumbers, rose petals, birch bark, spices and herbs. Each flavor requires different steeping periods — rose is done after three days; birch and chai take up to three weeks. When the infusion finishes, the production team adds sugar, then filters the mixture once again.
With distribution to 190 establishments, Hartford Flavor is bottling 400 to 600 units per order, up to twice a week. But each 375-milliliter bottle is still hand-filled, hand-labeled and individually numbered — an all-hands-on-deck assembly line production. Earlier this month, the company partnered with Connecticut-based distributor Brescome Barton to place its products throughout the state; before that, the Dubays had followed an industry professional's advice to self-distribute "as long as we can," Tom says. (The liqueurs are retail-priced around $20 per bottle.)
That work paid off, helping them build important relationships with retailers, and the Wild Moon liqueurs made their way to several cocktail menus this summer.
Abby's Place in Essex featured the cucumber flavor in a King of Scots drink, coupled with Hendrick's gin and fresh lime. At the Engine Room in Mystic, a Lathrop Fizz paired the birch flavor with Four Roses bourbon, walnut bitters and ginger ale. And before Unionville's new Cure Restaurant & Bar opened in August, head mixologist Matt Landry put together an unusual libation with the birch liqueur, green chile-flavored vodka and muddled hops and peaches topped with IPA, served in a smoked glass.
"The line forces you to be creative, and they just work," said Cure bar manager Nikki Simches by email, adding that the restaurant will use at least three of the Wild Moon liqueurs in its fall cocktails. "The flavors are what's hot right now. You think gin, you think cucumber. You think chai, you think fall spice. Lavender and rose play into the floral trend."
Hartford Flavor's website features nearly four dozen suggested recipes for would-be home mixologists. Simpler combinations match the florals with gin and prosecco, and the birch and chai versions with bourbon and whiskey; others have more intricate flavor profiles, such as pairing rose with tequila, blood orange juice and hibiscus tea reduction.
"The lavender, you can use it in a simple lemonade or a very sophisticated cocktail with seven ingredients," Tom said.
The couple moved to Hartford's West End from Glastonbury four years ago, when Lelaneia decided she wanted to get back into a "city vibe" with her landscape business, Dubay Design. She'll continue to run that business in addition to her role at Hartford Flavor.
"We had no idea it would turn into this," Tom says of their eventual foray into the liquor industry, "but we thought [the move would] turn into something cool and transformational for us as people."
They decided the name of their company would reflect their love of the city. The logo features a silhouette of Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon (inspiring the Wild Moon product line name). Diana is accompanied by a deer, the same animal featured at the center of Hartford's city seal.
"To us, that really symbolized that we wanted to be part of the renaissance Hartford is having, and help to grow that renaissance," Lelaneia says.
The Dubays hope to have Hartford Flavor Company's tasting room up and running by the end of October, where visitors will be able to take a tour of the Arbor Street space, sample the liqueurs and purchase bottles. In the next several months, they'll work on introducing new flavors to the Wild Moon collection, and they're considering future new product lines.
They're proud to be part of the city's inventive growth and development.
"Hartford has had stumbles, but it's finally moving along into something that could be really great," Lelaneia says. "There's so much art here and people doing incredibly creative, innovative things."
>>Hartford Flavor Company is at 30 Arbor St. in Hartford. Information: 860-338-1642, hartfordflavor.com.