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People Archive Photo
© Peter Schwepker

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Spinning the Bottles
Dave Williamson first changed the law to allow breweries and distilleries to operate in the same building. Now, he's crusading for the environment — one recyclable bottle at a time.

By Kelly Kramer

Flagstaff Dave Williamson joined Flagstaff's Mogollon Brewing Co. in September 2001, wanting to make it the No. 1 microbrewery in the state. Six months later, it was.

Although Mogollon was outselling all of the other microbreweries in Arizona — combined — Williamson says he "damn near put the company out of business.

"I didn't realize at the time that we were losing money on every single case of beer we sold," he says.

After running the numbers, Williamson realized that there was more money to be made in reusable, refillable kegs, rather than individual cases of beer. "If I could have a minikeg, a retail keg, with everything built in, that would be perfect," he says.

Although Coors Light and Miller Lite have similar products, Williamson says the concept was so close, yet so far away from being truly environmentally sound. "Those home kegs are disposable. You use them, throw them away and buy more. They missed the entire point."

Armed with his idea and a background in wholesale liquor distribution, Williamson, whose second company, Arizona High Spirits, distills vodka and whiskey, built a model. It sat on the bar at the brewery until representatives from the city of Flagstaff came calling for a donation of vodka for the 2008 Super Bowl.

"They asked me what the keg was and I told them it was just an idea," Williamson says. "I told them that the concept was to save money on packaging, but that the keg also eliminates waste." The representatives were intrigued.

A few weeks later, Williamson met with students and faculty from Northern Arizona University, who crafted a working prototype — a reusable 2.3-gallon minikeg. When the economy tanked, progress on the minikeg stalled.

But Williamson kept thinking, and once again decided on a new idea: reusable wine bottles and refillable wine kegs for retailers, a notion that could translate easily to the vodka business. It could also reduce waste and costs at one of Arizona's biggest assets — the Grand Canyon. Three hundred gallons of champagne bubble in glasses at the Canyon each year, and according to Williamson's research, the packaging costs for just one case of champagne is $23.44. With minikegs, those costs would dwindle to just over $2 per case.

Although he's still waiting on funding for the mini-kegs, Williamson is moving forward with refillable, returnable vodka bottles, thanks to a partnership with Phoenix-based Hensley & Co.

"I spoke to another distributor first, and that distributor said that if I took the idea of returnable bottles to Hensley, it wouldn't go over."

But Williamson got the last laugh. Hensley began distributing the vodka in test markets throughout the state in January.

"The consumers are ready for it," Williamson says. "Retailers are ready for it. Microbreweries and wineries are ready for it. Everybody's ready for it."

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