Where the heck is Skunktown? You won’t find it on a map. In fact, this place can only be found in history books. Prior to 1827, present-day Sergeantsville, NJ, was a popular skunk pelt trading post and as such, known to locals as “Skunktown.”
Being fans of this history, the brains behind Skunktown Distillery paid homage to the past when selecting their brand name. But it doesn’t stop there. This Jersey distillery keeps true to its name by sourcing local, organic ingredients for their award-winning, handmade products like Skunktown’s spicy vodka.
“This year we won the only double gold medal [in the vodka category] in the Finger Lakes International Wine and Spirits Competition for the spicy vodka,” said Paul Hyatt, founder and head distiller, as he recalled the judges’ results that placed this NJ distillery on the map as “Best in Class.”
The People of Skunktown
Paul Hyatt is a 52-year-old tradesman originally from Southern Oregon. However, he’s been distilling liquor for the last seven years around his family’s home in Seargentsville, NJ.
“For 32 years, my trade was tile setting. I was always one of those guys who wanted the job perfect,” explained Hyatt. “I brought that mentality over to the distilling world. If something doesn’t taste right, I won’t put it out. I like to drink and have good drinks. I expect quality out of what I buy and what I sell. My mindset is that I do it correctly, even if that means it takes longer.”
After spending 30 years as an analyst on Wall Street, Russ Hoffman’s new commute is to Skunktown Distillery’s headquarters in Flemington, NJ, where he is the general manager for the company. A University of South Carolina alum, Hoffman now facilitates Skunktown Distillery tastings, is beginning to work with a product distributor, and still finds time to play beach spikeball with his son, in Ocean City, NJ.
“And last year, our Apple Pie and Silver Rum both won gold medals,” said Hoffman. “We received two out of 12 gold medals that year while our oaked rum and golden gin got silver medals.”
Hoffman explained that Skunktown’s success is due to the distillery’s handcrafted process and of course, Paul Hyatt. “You gotta have a good product and Paul is just really good,” Hoffman said plainly.
Hyatt’s distilling skills and the resulting products are all incredibly high quality. Apparently these libations can be sipped without fear of a massive headache—something liquor drinkers are quite familiar with.
“But don’t drink six bottles and come tell me you have a hangover,” laughs Russ Hoffman.
Paul Hyatt explained his proprietary distilling procedure in detail, crediting his product’s purity to this research and development. The head distiller didn’t want to put all of this information on the record. Instead, he explained that other distillers might sacrifice quality in order to sell a greater quantity.
“Other stuff might have that medicine taste,” Hyatt says. “But we boil out the headache and sell the good stuff. It turns out to be less product, but you get quality and less headache.” We use USA-made copper tanks from Steven Stillz (yes, his last name is Stillz) and his crew at the Stillzstore.com in Nashua, NH. His beautifully hand-crafted stills take out the sulfites and contribute to the flavor. All of that combined makes for a superior product. It’s more pure and [it’s] cleaner.”
It shows that the Skunktown team takes great care at each step, from the ingredients to the tanks they use.
Hyatt and his team go out of their way to use local, raw ingredients. “Everything we do is handmade and locally crafted,” he said. “The water is from a well located on a farm in Sergeantsville. When we make a vodka, we will hand-peel 50 to 100 pounds of potatoes [from Keris Potato Farm, in Robbinsville].”
“It’s nice because these farmers are eager to help us out. It puts NJ on the map; some of the most quality fruits and veggies come from here.”
Hyatt also explained that his next endeavor would be to secure a large batch of white peaches from a local farmer in order to make a “Peach Shine” this fall.
As a well-versed businessman, Hoffman’s job is to stimulate sales. Despite being in the business world for decades, Hoffman admits he’s never seen anything like the distillery industry.
“It’s unlike any other business,” explained Hoffman. “The way you generate sales is to do tastings. It’s an immediate sale or not. Most people go into a store and look for brand names they know like Captain Morgan or Bacardi—unless they’ve gotten a chance to taste our Oaked Rum.”
It makes sense. Someone may be hesitant to try Spicy Vodka when reading that local Carolina Reaper peppers are used in the recipe. But at a tasting, there’s nothing holding a person back from trying just one shot.
“We’re in the process of expanding from 1,400 square feet to 5,000 square feet,” said Hoffman. “We need to get more people to our tasting room when we’re open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.”
Many a Skunktown visitor will be surprised that after one tasting they’ll not only be a customer but liking something they’ve never otherwise enjoyed.
For example, “Paul makes a Golden Gin infused with nine different botanical ingredients like juniper and lavender from a spice company in Lebanon, NJ. You don’t get the dryness in the back of your throat. A lot of people will say they aren’t gin people, and sure enough they’ll walk out of there with a bottle of gin.”
Next on the list for the Skunktown Distillery team is to deal with a “high class problem” which Hoffman so eloquently explained…
“Our biggest success to date would be growing the business during COVID. We did greater business and during the height of COVID we gained traction after donating isopropyl alcohol and making hand sanitizer for local fire departments, hospitals, police, and first responders.”
“However, this brings about our biggest challenge,” said Hoffman. “We have to keep up the quality of our product while scaling up.”
Hoffman noted that Skunktown’s latest decision to work with a distributor will get their products into many more liquor stores, bars, restaurants, and country clubs. This expansion means the crew must streamline the bottling, corking, sealing, and labeling process, which is done mainly by hand.
“We’re in many liquor stores around New Jersey. We’ve diversified into 10 restaurants and five country clubs where we’ve volunteered to sponsor a hole. Our following is very strong in Flemington, but we also have stores as north as Hoboken and Jersey City. We have featured drinks on the menu at places like Harry’s Oyster Bar in Atlantic City and McGettigans Tavern in Absecon.”
True to Their NJ Roots
With each expansion and when working through each hiccup along the way, the Skunktown team continues to remind themselves what they were up to just over six years ago. “It started with some friends sitting around the fire pit and drinking a little bit of moonshine. I had been watching the show Moonshiners and said, ‘If they can do it…’”
After many Google searches and forum research, Hyatt learned that “there weren’t many [distilleries] in the [Garden] State. At the time, [then-Governor] Christie had changed the law to reduce the distillers license [cost] and with that we collected some money and found some small-time investors.”
While 18th-century Skunktown can only be found in the past, Hoffman, Hyatt, and the distillery’s crew have plans to bring their product and brand name well into the future. Current customers and interested liquor connoisseurs can join the journey by following along on social media, by looking out for these products in local establishments, and of course by doing a on-site tasting and tour at 12 Minneakoning Road in Flemington, NJ.
“Having a product that I sell is crazy enough,” said Hyatt with a grin. “But to have the best product called by judges from around the world… It’s just little ole me [laughs]. I’m excited for the future of this company. Our community is so supportive and we’re now getting the notoriety from followers and other businesses. It keeps us fired up.”
Note: When I talked to these two, they both were experiencing some personal losses—Hoffman had recently lost a family member and Hyatt’s local colleagues lost businesses to Hurricane Ida. Both had obligations to see family members and to help clean up destroyed property. However, they both kept their interview times and were happy to talk to me. This speaks to the type of people who run Skunktown Distillery.