Bourbon and Rye are as American as apple pie. In fact, the native spirits have been distilled here since this country was merely a collection of colonies. And despite the modern popularity of American whiskey, in many ways the industry that crafts it has been notoriously stuck in the past. Siddharth Dilawri is helping to change that. As founder of Filibuster Distillery, the first generation immigrant from Delhi, India is challenging stubborn norms of what a whiskey maker ought to look like or where they ought to come from.
He joins the ranks of folks like Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler of Uncle Nearest; Marsha Milan and Heather Greene of Milam & Greene; Kaveh Zamanian of Rabbit Hole—to name but a few notable examples. Together they’re making sure that those benefitting from the success of American whiskey are more emblematic of the diverse nation it supposedly represents.
As for Dilawri, he never really set out to accomplish anything more than following his passion: to craft great spirits in the hills of northwest Virginia which he calls home. Originally laying down liquid in 2014, Filibuster sources all of its corn, rye, and barley from neighboring Shenandoah Valley farms. Ever since, Dilawri has been tinkering with creative barrel finish combinations to accentuate these ingredient-minded distillates. In so doing, the self-taught distiller is also expanding the parameters of what great American whiskey can taste like. He just so happened to stumble upon the American Dream along the way. He shares his journey with Forbes in an exclusive interview below.
What led your family to the United States?
Siddharth Dilawri: “I moved to the U.S. with my parents in 2008 for a better living. America is a dream country for anyone who lives in a Third World country. We saw it as a land of opportunity, but it didn’t really start off great for me. I was looking for a job in computers, but I didn’t find a job in that field. So, I started working in a liquor store, which was my first real exposure to spirits. I’d seen my dad drink scotch, but I knew nothing about brandy, cognac, whiskey, Irish whiskey, or bourbon. Yet I became fascinated and wanted to learn more.”
How did you become educated about spirits?
SD: “I had all these questions that I asked the guys I worked with at the store. They were super knowledgeable and taught me about how to taste whiskey. That intrigued me to learn more and soon I was learning about a vast industry and the science and art and passion behind it. Eventually, my father started a liquor store, and while I was finally working in IT, I worked for him also. We really enjoyed the business, so we opened up another liquor store, Modern Liquors, in Washington, D.C.”
But your love of the spirits business really took a jump with bourbon, right?
SD: “It did. And at our second store is where our passion for it really came forward. We wanted to know about everything we sold, and our bottles were really hand-selected. Things really changed for me when we went to Four Roses to pick a single barrel in 2014. We met Jim Rutledge there, he took us to lunch, and we picked a barrel from five single barrels there. That was my first experience of seeing a barrel! It was also my first chance to hold a whiskey thief, to feel that in my hands and watch the way the whiskey came out. It was then that I had a strong sense that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Selling packaged liquor is very different from distilling. What led you to that leap?
SD: “With decades of experience in specialty spirits in retail, we’d tasted and sold almost everything from super-aged single malt to wet-behind-the-ears American craft. With all that knowledge, it seemed a shame not to throw our own hat into the distilling ring. We knew it would be hard work, though. When we first started on the distillery, I bought our whiskeys from MGP (Multi-Grain Products in Lawrenceburg, Ind.). They’re great people and the distillery is massive and absolutely fascinating. I was on a tour there and the CEO of the place saw us and just joined in. He led me on a tour of the entire facility—the CEO! As we walked around and I started talking about my plans, he introduced me to the master distiller. I shared with them my passion I had for the work, and they encouraged me to keep building on it.
Was that a formative moment for you?
SD: “You have to understand this: I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I was a guy working an $8-an-hour job in IT. and also in a liquor store—getting to pick a barrel and talking to the CEO of MGP in his office! I felt like I’d arrived, that I could talk to somebody who knows something about this industry and really do something about it! We started the distillery in Maurertown, Virginia in 2013, but we began distilling our own in 2016. We have a 12-inch column still and a doubler that produces three barrels of whiskey per day. I really want to run the still 24-7, and that could happen now that we’re adding a chiller for the mash.”
Who taught you how to run a distillery?
SD: “We hired a gentleman who came from a bigger distillery and help train us. He did that for almost four months before coming to me and saying, “This is a very small operation, and I’m used to doing what I do in larger facilities,” and he left! I’m standing there thinking, ‘I have this massive amount of investment! What exactly am I going to do? Wait for someone else to come in and do it?’ I knew that wasn’t the answer. I’m one of those guys who will take a risk, and I decided I was going to run the still—me, who’s never run a boiler in his life is going to run a still! I know it sounded crazy, but when I told my wife about it, she backed me up.”
How did it go?
SD: “I went in there, turned on the boiler and turned on the stills, and successfully started distilling it. The first barrel I distilled in 2014 won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. We eventually hired a master distiller to do the job and we make 100 percent of our own whiskey now using my recipes. I also do all the blending. I take pride in that.”
Why did you name the distillery Filibuster?
SD: “We have our liquor store business in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. So, naturally spirited conversation is in our blood. We also aren’t afraid to speak up. Also, our innovative approach to blending and finishing reflects our homage to freedom of expression. That’s the essence of what makes this great land so special.”