Pioneers don’t take no for an answer. When the terrain becomes thick and almost impassible, they push back the problems and create a path that others can then follow. Pioneers are strong; they are unflappable.
Rhonda Kallman is a pioneer. She helped create the industry known as craft beer by co-founding the king of craft beers, Samuel Adams. Yes, that Samuel Adams. For that, we consider her a major cool kid. However, that pioneering spirit pushed Rhonda to further innovations, and helped her face significant battles, including Stage 3 breast cancer.
Rhonda’s pioneering spirit is also the reason a very cool building at the southern-most point of Boston Harbor is once again revived and breathing; this time as the Boston Harbor Distillery. It is in an industrial yet comforting building where Rhonda gets to create her first love- whiskey.
Rhonda as a Young Girl
The alcohol culture is nothing new; it’s been the backbone of a good time for years. And, it’s been flowing through the timeline of Rhonda Kallman’s life since she was a young girl in Peabody, Massachusetts.
It was the 60’s. Rhonda’s parents worked hard and at the end of the day, they relaxed by having a drink. She remembers her father and uncle laughing in between sips of whiskey. One of them might doze off, but they would eventually perk up and pick right back up again; pouring the brown spirit, while also reinforcing their bond.
It was these years when the smell and taste of whiskey and ginger first enamored Rhonda. She loved the grain and spice, as well as the spirited occasions on which it was prevalent. At the age of 15, Rhonda got a gig- at a bar. One might say, she had her career path right at a young age.
If you’ve never worked in a bar, then you might not understand the joy that comes along with giving customers a great experience. Guiding them through the evening and making sure they enjoy themselves is a fulfilling feeling and a lot of fun!
Happy hours were in full swing at this time. So, after her day job, Rhonda spent many hours socializing at the bars around Boston. This got her ready for her next gig. During this time, she also fine-tuned her own palate and learned the complexities and unique flavors between whiskey, scotch, bourbon, and many other spirits.
But, tending bar wasn’t the only thing Rhonda was doing. In 1980, she graduated with a degree in secretary science and got a job behind a desk at The Boston Consulting Group. It was there she met Jim Koch- her boss, a consultant, and brewmaster by lineage. Jim recognized that unique pioneering spirit in Rhonda. He was also aware of how comfortable she was in a bar and often said, “bars are Rhonda’s natural habitat!” So, he approached Rhonda to help him create and promote a craft beer company – The Boston Beer Company. Jim’s family had been making rich and flavorful beers for generations. And, although Rhonda would have preferred making whiskey, she agreed. She was on the right path.
Using her insights and years of training in and around the thickly connected Boston bars, Rhonda was able to sell the hell out of Sam Adams, eventually helping to make it a household name.
It was an exciting time! The girl from the North Shore was the co-founder of one of Boston’s most recognized, and now nationally known, products.
As the pioneering woman in the beer industry, as recognized by the Brewer’s Association, she worked hard in a male-dominated industry and garnered great satisfaction from helping the company grow. But, in 1995 the company went public, and board meetings and other obligatory tasks replaced that passion Rhonda enjoyed; she had to shift away from what she loved.
So, after 15 years of settling a new territory for craft beer, she left The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams Beer.
Rhonda told us, “Some might say it was the worst decision I ever made.” But, we know and Rhonda knows that one cannot question past decisions. It’s impossible to know the chain of events a different choice could create. We have to accept past decisions and grasp the new future ideas and opportunities.
Rhonda, who was at this time married and a mother of two, had a little light bulb go off in her head as a new century was dawning. Low-calorie beers were starting to become more prevalent. But, no one had a light beer that really tasted great and was less filling.
So, she reached out to Dr. Joseph Owades, a biochemist who invented light beer by manipulating yeast fermentation. She challenged him to improve on his first light beer (which became Miller Lite). He accepted that challenge and so, the New Century Brewing Company was formed and soon Edison beer was being poured into clear beer bottles. The clear bottles showed people the light brew was drinkable. Rhonda’s pioneering spirit was once again on the trail!
However, the terrain for this one was a little rougher. They launched Edison Beer, named for the father of light and for the spirit of invention, on the eve of 9/11. To make it worse, they launched it in Boston and New York, the two cities which at that time were the very last ones to want to crack open a cold beer, especially a new one that nobody had ever seen. Rhonda keep it going even though she faced a lawsuit with Thomas Edison’s decedents (which she won.) She brought the beer to the West Coast. And, at one point, Trader Joe’s sold the beer nationally. But, we all know about the financial mires of 9/11. Venture Capitalists became uber conservative. The investors walked.
But, don’t give up on Rhonda yet, New Century Brewing Company was not about to go flat. Another craft beer innovation quickly came into her head – caffeinated beer. With the help of Dr. Joe, she created Moonshot 69 and a patent on the process of adding caffeine to beer and ale in four countries. The represented not only the year man went to the moon, but also the amount of caffeine in the brew.
However, Rhonda needed a rocket for Moonshot. She needed investors who could help with distribution. Anheuser Busch agreed and 7/11 made plans to put the buzzy beer in 800 of their stores. Unfortunately, before the big debut, Busch decided to pass due to their $53B takeover from Inbey.
In not much time, Pete Coors of Coors Beer showed interest. He flew to Boston and decided to get on board with Rhonda and New Century Brewing Company brands. Only, that was also short-lived due to a $13B merger between Canadian brewer Molson and Coors. Yet again, Moonshot 69 was without any backers.
And there was more bad news; terrible news.
Rhonda had stage 3 breast cancer.
At this point, she was a mom of three facing a major fight that included weapons like a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. But, remember, Rhonda seems to be made of superhuman strength. In October of 2008, she completed radiation and is now a proud breast cancer survivor.
If that weren’t enough, the FDA started breathing down Rhonda’s neck. They said Rhoda had deliberately “adulterated” the beer because of the comeuppance of Four Loco and Panther Joose who used the same process. What they were selling was totally different than Moonshot 69. Nonetheless, Moonshot got caught in the net.
Rhonda tried to keep up the battle against the FDA. Unfortunately, she didn’t win. In 2011, it was time to move on from the craft beer industry. So, Rhonda closed New Century Brewing Company.
If you’ve garnered anything from Rhonda’s story it should be that she doesn’t quit. Many people would have stopped after just one of these setbacks. But Rhonda clearly is one strong woman. We hope you didn’t expect her to just retire?
No, of course, you didn’t! Rhonda was going to get back to her first love – that good time spirit- whiskey.
Rhonda’s husband, a builder, helped to renovate an old industrial building located on Boston Harbor. At the time they found the building from the 1800’s, it was dilapidated. But, this once center of innovation was about to receive love. After writing recipes and toiling with a lengthy renovation, they opened the doors of the stunning Boston Harbor Distillery to the public in 2015.
The main product, Putnam Whiskey, is named for the Putnam Nail Factory, which first stood on the property. We sampled some and loved that warm-your-ribs-and-heart-feeling it gave us. Plus, who doesn’t want to drink with Rhonda Kallman?
Besides the Whiskey, they make Lawley’s Rum (named for the shipyard that the building also once housed) and a rum creme that had Kim tilting her hand for more. 😉
And, in a nod to Rhonda’s roots, the Boston Harbor Distillery makes three unique and tasty spirits made from Samuel Adams beer. Pretty cool coming full circle with Jim Koch- right? Of course, it is, because that’s the sort of cool stuff Rhonda does!
The spirits are sold in liquor stores and are in 150 restaurants. But, you can also purchase them in the Boston Harbor Distillery’s retail store.
So, we’ve established their booze is top notch. Now, let’s get to the event space – weddings, corporate events, whatever the occasion, this building is COOL. We’re even trying to dream up an event just to go back and invite all of our friends!
If you don’t have an event, you can always hit up the bar on Saturdays. They have a fun cocktail menu that mixes the traditional cocktails with BHD spirits. They also offer tours, where you can learn how that belly-warming whiskey is made!
Look at those cocktails! Yes, they are incredibly tasty and will most likely put you in a fantastic mood. But, the best fact about those drinks of delicious fun is that they are the product of a hard-working woman who spent many years chasing her dreams to arrive at the one that finally feels like home. Pretty tasty indeed.
Rhonda, thank you for the hospitality. Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us and make us a drink (or two). Mostly, thank you for being a pioneering woman and inspiration- cheers to you Rhonda!
Check out our video tour of the Distillery and another opportunity to get to know this super cool chick!!! In the meantime, enjoy the gallery!
Boston Harbor Distillery 12 R Ericsson Street Boston MA 02122
(Neponset/Dorchester section — across from Venezia Waterfront Restaurant and Boston Winery)
Guided tours include a history of the location, distillery and spirits, a description and tasting of our spirits and an up-close look at how and where we make BHD spirits.
Tour Times: 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 (limited to 20 people per tour; first come, first serve)