After noticing more than a decade ago how distillation and cocktails enhanced his own friendship groups, Michael Stuckey set out to create that same sense of community for others.
“I fell in love with the idea of spirits first; this idea that spirits were inherently about bringing people together,” said Stuckey, founder of Lifted Spirits Distillery. “I saw that in my friend group where we were trying craft spirits and making different cocktails.”
“Play” is at the core of everything Lifted Spirits does, Stuckey said, adding that the distillery, which opened in 2016 in the East Crossroads, tries to create “cohesive, journey-like spirits on the palate.”
“Often I say that playing with botanicals and spirits in particular is like having an infinite wall of knobs and dials you can turn to dial in different flavors,” Stuckey said. “You can just make this web of flavors that you can pull in different directions. That’s really why I fell in love with spirits, was this idea of being able to tinker and create experiences with just the flavors.”
That mix of whimsical experimentation and technical precision has yielded lofty recognition, with Lifted Spirits named Missouri’s best gin distillery at the New York International Spirits Competition this summer.
“If the bright [gin] is the sun and the bold is the moon, then supernova is like an explosion in the sky,” Stuckey said.
Supernova is a navy strength gin created by Joe Gianchino, production manager at Lifted Spirits. Stuckey was quick to credit Gianchino and the entire Lifted Spirits team for the recognition.
“We’re more than the sum of our parts, and I could never have done this by myself — like ever, ever ever,” Stuckey said.
Just as playfulness and creating experiences are central to the distillery’s ethos, the tight-knit environment fostered among the team is the straw that stirs the drink.
“I want to take every opportunity I can to highlight this amazing team that makes up Lifted Spirits, because that’s who we really are,” he continued. “We’re not just a story or a brand or another distillery. We’re this very unique group of individuals who are very passionate about what we do.”
If I see a curtain, I’ve gotta rip it down
Lifted Spirits was intentional in choosing its name, Stuckey said.
“That’s what we want to do.”
“That’s why I wanted to create a place like this, so people could hang out, have some fun, shoot the shit, chill, and have these experiences with their friends that are both milestone experiences and everyday experiences,” Stuckey said. “It’s all of those things.”
Stuckey wants guests to enjoy those experiences on visits to the distillery’s tasting room at 1734 Cherry St., but said he also hopes they will buy a bottle and play around with spirits “on their own patios, too” — just like he and his friends began doing years ago.
Because of that, Lifted Spirits shares all its recipes and strike sheets with any home distillers, bartenders, or curious customers, and offers cocktail kits and classes, Stuckey said. He also leads tours of the distillery, which can be reserved on the website.
“That’s the way I’m wired,” he said. “If I see a curtain, I’ve gotta rip it down. None of this ‘You’re not allowed in the room’ stuff.”
That commitment to transparency and authenticity was a key driver in the distillery’s rebranding process in 2020, which was prompted by some introspection during the early stages of the pandemic, Stuckey said.
“Part of who we are is we’re very transparent and authentic,” said Stuckey, a former pastor. “I feel like anytime someone says that though, you’re like, ‘Are you really?’ But we’re pretty transparent, and that was the kicker of why I wanted to rebrand. It just didn’t feel right.”
With rebranded bottle designs, language, and communication, Lifted Spirits has undergone “wild” growth, said Gianchino.
“I remember when we started talking about how things were going to grow, and the uncertainty of what it will actually become of it, and then it’s been year over year now of massive growth,” he said. You look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, it was a completely different ballgame we were playing two years ago.’”
Bartenders talking, with zero gossip
That growth shows no signs of slowing down, according to COO Derrick Neuner, who said Lifted Spirits will be expanding distribution to several states within the next year.
Stuckey also teased that some “exciting” additions to the distillery’s whiskey portfolio are on the way, in addition to the just-released Barrel Reserve No. 3, which is only available for a limited time.
Neuner attributed much of the distillery’s success to the philosophy of mutual respect — both for your coworkers and the customers — something that the former bartender said is especially critical in service industry work.
“Pretty much everything comes down to that,” Neuner said. “We have excelled past a lot of our goals as a company, and I attribute a lot of that success to the way we interact with one another and the vibes we’re trying to keep here at work.”
Lifted Spirits sticks to a zero-tolerance gossip policy, instead encouraging its employees to talk to a person in a position to change something. Gianchino — another former bartender — said that ultimately makes the team even more close-knit.
“When we have differences of opinions, we work them out, because we respect each other,” Gianchino said. “And I find that we’ve always grown out of any differences, really.”
“That’s the cool thing about having creative people that you work well with,” he continued. “You can help each other work through it and find something that is not just a compromise — it’s better.”
‘We’re a bunch of spirits nerds’
As much as light-heartedness and care for one another are important in making Lifted Spirits tick, Stuckey noted that the distilling process still takes “a lot of labor and a lot of math.”
Like Neuner and Gianchino, most Lifted Spirits employees are former bartenders who came to the distillery eager to learn more about spirits. Stuckey has to remind prospective employees that it’s still a service industry job, he said.
“It’s hard for people sometimes to take off the rose-colored glasses,” Stuckey said. “This is something that comes up in interviews often. ‘Can you take off the rose-colored glasses? Because 90 percent of what we do is the dishes.’”
What’s left is a “curious, creative, and quirky” team with a passion for distilled spirits, Stuckey said. As for the distillation process itself, the founder describes it as “all art and all science.”
“Distillation is all art and it’s all science, and you have to hold those things in tension,” Stuckey said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s always going to be an intuitive leap. But you also have to quantify it, and often those intuitive leaps are made possible by quantification.”
“If it was all science, [spirits] would all be the same,” he added. “But without an intuitive leap, without science, it would never be replicable or refined. . . It’s 100 plus 100 equals 100.”
That desire to do things just a little differently is what makes Lifted Spirits stand out, according to Stuckey.
“We’re a bunch of spirits nerds that just want to bring people on this new journey with us,” he said. “If spirits were a path in the mountains, there’s a really well-established path where a lot of spirits have gone. We know that path. But we’re kind of making little new paths. It’s like, ‘There’s a waterfall over here. Let’s actually build a cool new path to this waterfall and bring people along with us.’”