Along the Way: The family story behind "Black Hills Contraband Distillery"

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN)- In the 600 block of Kansas City Street, sits Rapid City's only licensed distillery.
And inside you'll find a multitude of flavors, a bit of history, and a recipe originating before prohibition.

A row of Black Hills Contraband brand liquor bottles behind bar

It's a place where time seems to stand still, and the manifestation of a spicy leaf on a local man's family tree, "Along the Way" in downtown Rapid City.

Behind the bar inside the Contraband Distillery, there are a couple rows of bottles and flavors of liquor.

"Yes the one's you see here with the labels here, these are the ones we produce on site and those are the one's we sell at the liquor store and we sell off sale here," says CEO Jerry Sailer.

CEO Jerry Sailer spends his mornings as a painter, afternoon's and evenings here at the bar. He says he loves both jobs, but hopes someday, he can spend all day mixing drinks, not mixing two jobs. The bottles without labels are experimental flavors.

"Like this one. I will not be able to call it a Scotch because it's not made in Scotland. It's not made the way a traditional Scotch is. It tastes like Scotch, so we're actually going to be calling that one Jackalope's Revenge," Sailer explains.

But for Sailer this place is about more than making liquor. It's about family.

"I'm a 7th generation bootlegger. I'm the first in my family to ever get my tax stamp and do this legitimately and not look over my shoulder," he says.

This place used to be the mechanics bay for the old Oldsmobile/Cadillac dealer downtown. These days it's home to a dream that is very much alive.

"On my 15th birthday, my grandfather and my father taught me how to build my first set up and run my first batch of the family recipe," Sailer recalls.

It's about growing and freshening and sharing, the recipe of the generations that came before him.

"It's been upgraded a bit. What I was 1st taught to make at 15 was basically 160 proof and it tasted like kerosene with lighter fluid for flavor," Sailer says, perhaps only half jokingly.

He likes to say there's no burn, no bite to the liquor he sells. That's something he says he learned from his Great Aunt Mary when she was 98, and he was only 19.

But when you think about Bourbon, about prohibition, about bootlegging, one name often comes to mind.

"During the 20's, her and her husband managed a hotel in Chicago. She was an English teacher by day and a bootlegger by night," Sailer says as he tells the family story.

Yep, Al Capone. Sailer says, his Great Aunt Mary sold to Al Capone. He says, as the story goes, the Chicago mobster came in one day wanting to rent the hotel they managed, for a wedding party, and wanted her to provide the alcohol. He says, she wanted to know why he picked their hotel.

"She said he got up, walked across the room , leaned down to her and quit smiling and says for years you've never paid me one dime to make the liquor you make in the basement. He says, now you're gonna let me have the hotel for the weekend and you're gonna supply the liquor, and everybody will be happy," Sailer recalls.

So, the roots, run deep.

"I mean over the years, there are at least 20 different times I tried to get this going," he says, remembering trying to get the business started.

He says life kind of gets in the way, and he would put his dream on the shelf. But then something happened.

"About 8 years ago I was diagnosed with terminal emphysema and it made me realize I had a shelf life," Sailer tells us.

Turns out he says, he later learned it was a misdiagnosis. However that misdiagnosis, was a wake up call, and the spark that led to the creation of Black Hills Contraband about 4 and a half years ago.

"I take my time to make my dreams happen instead of saying well there's always a tomorrow, because there's not always a tomorrow,"
Sailer says.

But there is a today, to celebrate a spicy leaf on the family tree, and share it with the world.

Sailer says, Contraband spent their 1st three years in Box Elder before relocating to Rapid City about a year and a half ago.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call us, or e-mail Steve Long at stevel@blackhillsfox.com to let us know.