12/26/2016 0 Comments
Happening upon great things in life and kindred souls is a common, if not daily occurrence in Durham. In a city that prides itself on its legit diversity, intelligence, community, soul and seems to be coining the word eclecticness, finding a human or 40 you can jive with is as easy as walking out your front door. This is a city where one good thing leads to another, if you let it. It’s also a city that has opened doors of opportunity for many who’ve had doors closed on them elsewhere. In a roundabout way, that’s how the Head Distiller of 2 Doors Distillery came to Durham and came to be a part of The Bulls of Durham Project.
“Come on in the door!” That was part owner of The Rickhouse Daniel Kulenic’s answer to my request for an interview for this book project. That’s about as formal as it gets in this city that takes great pride in its grit and blue collar history. Southern hospitality and authenticity take precedence over formalities any day.
I had a whirlwind interview with Daniel and got to discover that the Rickhouse, like many things in Durham, is a genius offshoot of a primary project that happened to really work. Someday we’ll talk about how the ongoing reconstruction of the Jack Tarr Building is another one of those happy-afterthought-gone-great Durham wonders, but for now let’s focus on what going on behind two particular doors.
It turns out that Daniel and his business partner Tyler Huntington, the namesake of Tyler’s Taproom, actually purchased the building at 609 Foster Street with the vision of distilling alcohol. Renovating a history building, building a brand new distillery, finding an expert distiller and aging booze all takes time, but it didn’t take up all the space in the building. With a large amount of beautiful, historic space in the building it dawned on the two owners to maximize their investment and put the building to good use. That is how the Rickhouse came to be, filling the void in Durham for a non-affiliated event space that could hold more than 120 people.
Keeping up with the work his ideas create has Daniel running at a constant breakneck speedy with directionality akin to the Tasmanian Devil. Moments after walking through the front door Daniel gave me the historic background on the building, his view of Durham, a tour, an overview of both The Rickhouse and Two Doors Distillery and a spontaneous introduction to the next interview I didn’t know I would be doing.
Enter Sean Stark. While meeting Sean wasn’t planned, it also wasn’t happenstance. With a little over a year and a half under his belt in the Bull City, Sean still has the perspective of a newcomer. He also happens to be as vastly multifaceted as any other Durhamight. Sean is a self-described traveler of life, photographer, a martial arts practitioner (combat Silat based on Indonesian Pencak Silat to be exact) and Head Distiller at Two Doors Distilling. Born and raised in the upper Midwest with a dread for the cold, but a love of the four seasons.
Taking note that Sean seemed unfazed by the surprise introduction, interview and random woman touching every last piece equipment in his still-under-construction distillery, I figured he had been around Durham for a quick minute. I started the interview rolling by asking how long he’d been in the Bull City and how did he get from Michigan to North Carolina. His answer had that almost eerie, distinctly Durham vibe that nothing around here is happenstance — nothing.
“I came to start work at Two Doors Distilling on June 15th of 2015. I’d been given the choice of a few different opportunities but when I started talking to the guys here at The Rickhouse and Two Doors Distillery, it was very comfortable.
“There were some pretty specific things that lined up to make this opportunity stand out as viable. Even the fact that I had the opportunity to come to Durham and meet the guys personally was cool. I had an opportunity to do some consulting at another distillery in Virginia. The guy [owner of the Virginian distillery] had some things to do on Sunday, so he just let me use his car to drive down from Virginia to meet these guys. That was a very cool thing.
“Then, as we talked further there were a few pretty specific things that seemed to line up considering what I was looking for and what they were looking for. An example was that they had been planning to send whoever they hired for this position to the exact distillery I was leaving to get training!”
Everything seemed to line up to create a perfect fit for Sean at Two Door Distillery, but it would be character of our city that sealed the deal. That jenesequa of our city that captivates newcomers and turns them into lifers got to him. As the locals would say, he drank the Durham koolaide.
“On that day when I came down to meet the guys one thing that stood out was Durham’s character or charm. We drove through downtown to look at housing areas of the city, etcetera. After talking about the distillery side, I remember feeling like it was this great little city with a ton of local, mom and pop types of businesses. They ranged from things that seemed high-end to things that seemed pretty simple and approachable for an average person. I liked that.
“I liked that there were trees all over the place. That it wasn’t just concrete. There were hills, and parks, and people out and about. Having been raised in Wisconsin and Michigan, and then having spent 10 years in Central Florida, I have seen city life and über small town life. I prefer the in-between. That seems to be where Durham is right now.
“Plus, having lived in many different places in my life, I have learned that I’m not really a fan of the north. It’s beautiful in its own way, but I love the summer and the heat for the most part. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the summer can be very long… especially when you work with heat, hot water, and steam for a living. In any case, Durham was a place with four seasons, not quite as hot as Florida and not as ridiculously cold or snowy as Michigan and Wisconsin.”
While Sean gave his very Goldilocks-esque perspective of the city, I’d begun going through all the items on his work bench and happened upon some label and bottle design work. Turns out the distiller has design skills.
“Distilling wasn’t my first career. My career path had been Graphic Design-Creative Direction and photographer for nearly 20 years. But life happened and I lost my job. This was about four years ago and I had a hard time finding a job in my industry that would pay the bills. I had to start getting creative with what I was looking for. I had been watching the craft distilling scene for a while and had started to see it growing more and more.
“Now obviously I have an art background and very little science at all — certainly no chemistry and only a little biology. That’s about it. But I had been learning about distilling for quite some time and was very into the craft beer scene. At least drinking it!
“It’s funny because people always assume that I started out home brewing, but I didn’t. I had watched and helped friends do it, but I was just not interested in making beer. It seemed like there was so much good beer out there already. The craft distilling trend was still getting its feet under it, so I started reading and learning about distilling.
“Then the job thing happened. I contacted a cousin of my wife’s who is in the distilling and brewing industry. He’s got one of the larger breweries in Michigan and he offered me an internship. I didn’t have the means to do an internship, so I just kind of let it slide. I needed a paycheck! After a few months he approached me again and offered me an apprenticeship. Since I didn’t have anything else very promising happening, I decided to take the jump. Within about a weeks’ time I packed up some of my belongings and moved myself up to Michigan, leaving my family behind to learn distilling.
“For context, my wife’s family is from the Grand Rapids, Michigan area and mine are from Detroit, Ann-Harbor area. Some of my relatives were responsible for helping get Detroit started, which was considered lower Quebec back then.
“After about six months I went back down to Florida and packed the family up. We moved into an old family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we stayed for a few years…shoveling…a lot.
“While there working at the brewery and distillery I had the opportunity to take a Cereal Distilling Course and got my certification, which is not required but extremely useful.
“After some time at the main production facility I moved over to a pilot distilling system and began to do nothing but specialty batches, liqueurs, vermouth, bitters, and different studies. I was there about two years before taking the position here in Durham.”
Two Doors Distillery is aiming to have their first batch raring to go at the beginning of 2017 — a white rum according to Daniel. From there we can expect a continuation of a variety of liquors that maximize on all Sean’s experiences and education in distilling and partaking. Variety is a must in a city this eclectic and quirky — aspects that stand out to Sean.
“It was funny when I first came to visit and talk to these guys, I fell in love with certain quirky little things. I came off of Roxboro and there’s this big rooster welded thing and then I saw King’s Burger down on the corner. It’s a city, but it has this… It has its Mateo’s and high end things, but it has these ‘base,’ these simple, real things. Durham is NOT plastic. It even has food truck rodeos! Durham has character.
“When I came through to check out the distillery and they drove me around Durham, I loved it. I’m not a foodie, but I love good food. But I don’t like veneer. It was cool as we drove around I got to hear from these guys where Durham was and where it has come from and out of. It was exciting for me. It felt like this is something I could be a part of and that I could leave an imprint on. That was a pretty cool moment for me.
“It’s unlike other cities that are all grown up. They are mostly just noise and establishment. But it’s the simple character of Durham that shines through, not the big city thing. At the end of the day, I told my wife, “it feels like a small town city.” With places like King’s Burgers, Blue Note, MotorCo, Fullsteam Brewing, Alley 26.… those are the places where you can find more of the character of Durham. It’s not the high polish of the city.
“It’s really interesting seeing a city that built itself up from a history of tobacco use and now finds itself having to reimagine itself because it’s livelihood has essentially disappeared and has become completely taboo for the majority of people. It’s a story that resonates with my own story so much.
“You know, places like Detroit, where my relatives have lived since its creation, we’re still watching! It was this great city, which became even greater on the backs of the automotive industry. It was the Car City, the automotive capital of the country. But here it sits still figuring out how to reimagine itself. I don’t think it’s quite gotten it figured out yet. It will. Like Durham has. It’s asking the question, “What do we do?” Durham has done that.”
With a keen eye and appreciation for the city, I was interested to see what changes Sean would like to see in Durham.
“That’s tough for me. I generally try to roll with whatever happens. I don’t worry about it too much. I’m more inclined to want to see it change slowly and acclimate itself. I’d hate for it to become a big city that loses its identity and just becomes another of the same.”
Despite knowing Sean is a skilled martial artist, I still hit him with the hardest hitting question of all, which bull in the city is his favorite.
“The painted one on the original Durham Bull stadium. It’s the first one I got to see and it’s my every day. Of course, it was more significant for me because I knew the stadium from the movie. I think this is the perfect place to center yourself on Durham.”
For those looking to take up martial arts with Sean you can get more information HERE. Sean has taught combat Silat for many years. He feels this particular style, “provides the tools and training you need to protect yourself every day in an effective, simple and personal way. It’s based on Indonesian Pencak Silat, but made culturally relevant to life in the west.”
To follow The Bulls of Durham book project email TheBullsOfDurham at gmail.com and say, “Yo Sheila. Please put me on the mailing list.” Also follow the project on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Oh! And now that this website is a thing, you can check back here. Make it your homepage. Tell all your friends. Write home to your mom about it. :::Flashes Bull City hand sign.:::
Oh and treat yourself, your mom and everyone you love to the best coffee mug of all time, which happens to support this here book project. No big deal. But very big deal. Click HERE.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.