It should come as no surprise that GWAR is releasing their own spirit. In fact, a valid question might be why it took them so long to do that. However, starting next month at the GWAR B-Q, you’ll be able to pick up (and put down) GWAR’s Arctic Snow Vodka, a potato vodka distilled at Richmond’s James River Distillery. We caught up with GWAR’s Michael Derks (more commonly known as Balsac the Jaws of Death) to talk about their expansion into vodka, as well the band’s restaurant, The GWARBar, that’s been open since last year. We also spoke about this year’s GWAR B Q and if they have plans to expand.
What led to GWAR having their own vodka?
One of the GWAR Bar’s partner’s wives is involved in a distillery here in Richmond. It just seemed to make sense. Since we’ve had the bar, we’re doing some things with breweries and different GWAR beers. GWAR liquors is a pretty logical step for us.
What’s Richmond like as far as a town for spirits? Is there a big craft beer scene there?
The craft beer scene is really strong in Richmond. We have I can’t even count how many breweries and cideries we have. The best craft beer bar in the state as voted by Maxim is here. This is probably blowing up everywhere but Richmond seems to really love its craft beer.
How involved were you guys with crafting the vodka and deciding how it tasted?
Very. We decided we wanted to do a potato vodka because I’ve always liked the flavor of potato vodka. It’s a lot smoother than the other grains. They have this almost three story copper pot kettle distillery at the actual distillery in Richmond. It’s in this little warehouse in one of the odd parts of town. We went and tasted all the stuff they’re doing. They mostly do gins, so this is their first vodka. We went through a couple different tasting and figuring out how many times we wanted to distill it. There’s not that much involved with adding flavor like they do with the gin. We’re trying to get as pure as it can but it still has an interesting taste to it. There’s undertones or overtones of cucumber almost coming from the potato. It’s one of the best tasting vodkas I’ve ever had.
Excellent. Do you consider yourself a vodka connoisseur?
It’s pretty much my drink of choice. I’ve gone through my different stages in my life. I’ve gone through a gin phase, definitely whisky was the longest one. It’s kind of my go-to drink whenever I go out. Vodka sodas, it’s your basic drink.
Definitely basic. Since they make gin, would you consider branching out and having a GWAR gin?
Yeah! Definitely. If this goes well, it’d be great if we could all different liquors. Gin, bourbon, everything. A fully stocked bar of GWAR liquors!
Is it available now? Or is it just going to be out for GWAR B-Q?
We’re going to be debuting it at GWAR B Q next month. I’m actually teaming up with a couple celebrity bartenders like Derek Brown from DC, and a local guy from The Rogue Gentlemen, one of the leaders of craft cocktails here in Richmond. Also, we’re teaming up with Texas Beach, which makes a bloody mary mix we use at GWARbar. We’ll have drinks available, like GWAR bloody marys. We’ll call them “Bloody Slymentras” after Slymenstra Hymen, of course.
The vodka will be available at the GWARBar as well?
Yeah, the day after the GWAR B-Q, we have an event at the GWARBar called the Brutal Brunch the morning after the show. We’re gonna have bands at the bar. The bar is a small restaurant. People think because it’s the GWARBar, it’s a venue. We are a neighborhood bar and restaurant. We have a parking lot. We’re going to be doing an event in the parking lot. We’re gonna have bands and serving food and drinks out in the parking lot with little kiddie pools and games out in the yard.
Speaking of GWARBar, what have you learned in a year and a half of running it?
It’s great. I’ve been in the restaurant business. My first job when I was 12 years old was steaming lobsters on the outer banks. I’ve been working in restaurants ever since. I kind of knew more what to expect than new restaurant owners would. I didn’t have a lot of unrealistic expectations. I still love it. It’s the only job I would do other than play music.
How hands on are you when you’re not on the road?
I’m the managing partner. I’m one of the managers there for day to day business. I actually bartend there. I’m the executive chef. I’m not in the kitchen as much as I’d like to. I do work on the menus with our chef and came up with the original basic ideas or the concept. We wanted a gourmet junk food. I tried to help steer the chef in that direction.
What works and what hasn’t worked so far?
I wanted to be a little bit more out there as far as the ideas for the food. The reality of how much people are going to spend for what they perceive as hamburger and fries. We’re doing foie gras on a hot dog and people are coming in and they just want basic things. It’s a balancing act of what we’ll sell and what really excites me. You can’t do everything you want to do. We’re a small restaurant. I’m not a celebrity chef. I can’t dictate how much we’re going to charge. We’re basically a bar and grill. I have to dial down my dreams for the menu in some aspects. We’ll do fun stuff every once in awhile but we have to do what people want.
What do you think the ratio is of GWAR fans to people that are just coming in to a restuarant?
We’re a neighborhood bar. We get families in there. People are just coming because we’re in the neighborhood. Kids love it because they see blood splattered on the floor and swords on the wall. Even if they don’t know what GWAR is, they see all these crazy pictures. It’s like going into a living comic book. We definitely get people making pilgrimages from all over the country. People say, “I drove 16 hours to have this drink and sit at your bar.” That happens every day. It’s a good feeling.
Who are some of the best famous random people that showed up?
We’re not far from one of Richmond’s best venues, which is The National. We get a lot of touring acts who’ll come and eat there before or after the shows. Slayer was in. A lot of bands that I wouldn’t think were GWAR fans would come in, which is kind of odd. We get a lot of musicians definitely coming ion. Every touring metal band. They’re like, “Oh I’ve got to eat at the Gwarbar in Richmond.”
How is GWAR B-Q shaping up? Is it like a finely tuned machine at this point?
We’re learning stuff every year, definitely. We come across new problems every year and we have to come up with new solutions but I think we’re definitely learning and it’s getting better every year. I think our line up this year is incredible. We have plans for growing it and making it better. Each year we try to implement something new, that’s going to make it that much better.
Is it always going to be at Hadad’s Lake, or are do you envision taking it elsewhere?
It would be great if we could take it to other cities and have a west coast one and have multiple ones. Part of the fun of it is the water park, but there is the chance of us out-growing that. If the county can’t work with us and help us, we need to extend the concert after sunset and things like that.
You still can’t do that huh?
No, it still has to end right at sunset. That’s why we have other events going on around Richmond that can keep things going. We have the after show party and the GWAR B-Q at The National. We have the entire Summer Slaughter tour with Cannibal Corpse and Nile. We have all types of events that people can do. Gwarbeque is the highlight, but that’s only one part of the GWAR B-Q weekend.
It seems like the line up is a little more diverse with Against Me! playing this year and The Dillinger Escape Plan is definitely probably one of the heavier bands you’ve had. You also have Lagwagon and Murphy’s Law. Do you want to keep diversifying the line up?
Yeah, we do. GWAR is not your typical straight heavy metal band. We’ve always had a bunch of different influences. We like to show our festival some of our different influences that aren’t as obvious to some of our fans. Last year we were so excited of having The Descendents there, one of our biggest influences. Just because we are a metal band, we’re coming from punk rock and hardcore roots. We have the humor aspect that we appreciate that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Hopefully our fans are going to be more open minded. And not like “Oh, it’s gotta be metal, that’s all we’ll listen to.” We do have the B4B Q which is strictly a metal show. And it’s one of the best line ups you’re going to see all year.
Lastly, it’s a little premature, but any talk of a new GWAR record?
Yeah, we’re in the process of writing now. It’s difficult with the touring we’re doing and organizing this festival. But, that’s definitely the main thing on our list and getting a new album written and recorded for next year.