Unplugged: The shot
Tommy Brunett on music, whiskey, and headgear
During his lifetime, Tommy Brunett founded Iron Smoke Distillery, toured the world with his band, helped revitalize a run-down neighborhood in Fairport, has been homeless, had two kids, done marketing for Richard Branson, and broken Guinness World Records. Nowadays—both literally and figuratively—he wears some really cool hats.
You’re famous for your storied background. Can you tell me about the different phases of your life and where you’ve been?
Where have I been? I’m nobody from nowhere, how about that [laughs]? Well, I grew up in western New York, minimum-wage kind of kid, no-one-from-nowhere kinda guy. My dad was a seamfitter, my mother was a nurse, and I fell in love with guitar when I was sixteen years old … I worked at House of Guitars, and my first lucky break was a band called Modern English; that was in the early nineties. I remember the guitar player gave me a call, the label set it up, and he didn’t even ask me what music I like; he just asked what I like to wear. And I said, “I’m not afraid to mix plaids with polka dots; I like to wear shoes that arrive in the room a couple days before I do. He asked me what kinda guitar I wanted to play; I said, “What do you want me to play?” I said all the right things, and I was in New York City the next day. They had a hit called “I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You.” I was a fan of the song, and I went to New York, and I remember David Bowie was playing down the hall, and Yoko Ono and her son were in the kitchen, and I was like, “don’t blow this one, man.” Everybody talks about “the shot,” well, that was mine. I auditioned, and ten days later I was on the Today Show, we ended up being on, all of a sudden it went from not being able to afford a new set of strings to Gibson giving me guitars. I had a tour bus, 30,000 people a night…
Then, in 2008, the bottom fell out of the economy and—living high in Tribeca with a beautiful view of the whole city—I had to leave and moved up here. I was gonna go to Nashville or go back to New York City, and one night I was in the backyard. I was in the backyard smoking ribs, drinking whiskey, kids in diapers, getting my swerve on (did I mention drinking whiskey?), and I thought, “Let’s put two great American pastimes together. Has anyone done that before?” Great American applewood-smoked barbecue, great American whiskey. Great American pastimes. So I kind of put the chocolate and peanut butter together, had some great partners helping me get the stuff out—because it takes a village to make a bottle of whiskey—and experimented with the recipe … And we opened our tasting room a couple years ago, and there was a line to get in. So that’s pretty much it, but first I’m a dad. Two kids, that’s the most important thing. And then this is how we put the cereal in the bowls for the kids now. It’s a lot like rock and roll, man; it’s a lot like being in a band. I just put a different band together and found a loophole making whiskey. So that’s it, and it’s a long-winded answer, but it’s what happened.
I was actually gonna ask how you guys landed here, because a friend I was talking to grew up on this street, and he said his whole life this place was abandoned.
They’ve developed from our door up, then Triphammer came in, and I think it’s just because we proved it’s a success. I mean, we’re in Fairport. You could throw a baseball or a rock from bar to bar. And there’s great music, and you’re along the canal, the history here, and the rail tracks…there’s a lot of history.
Are you involved much in the current music scene? Any new local bands you want to mention?
I like to think so; I’m trying to support it as much as I can. And I still play. New bands … Dirty Pennies, if you wanna talk about someone that’s doing a really cool thing, independent kind of artist. They’ve played here. The Lipker Sisters, they’re three girls from Geneva, and they sing like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and steampunk guys come in and dance all night to them. And there’s a lot of great bands here, like Junkyard Fieldtrip. My old guitar player’s in the band, and whenever they play here, they have me up on stage because one of the songs I wrote is on his album.
I think I know the answer already, but of all the stages of your life that you’ve had, if you could warp back and relieve any one of them, what would you choose?
Oh, jeez. Well, the number one thing is having kids. It’s like it rewires your brain. All the sudden the universe makes sense. Before then, I never thought I’d have a house, a kid. A wife? Like, I was just gonna live on the road forever, you know? “I’ll never get married!” Now there’s a wife and a kid, and I’ve got all that stuff. So I wouldn’t give that up for anything. The music stuff, I love music, man. But you know, before COVID I used to go through the airport and see the guys with their backstage pass and their laminated pass on their backpack, and I’m just like, “I don’t miss that, man.” I miss being on stage, but I don’t miss everything in between. Because it’s a lot. For that two hours a night, you’re away from your family, you’re traveling, and you know I loved it back then. But I just, when I look at those guys I don’t miss it. I’m like, “go get ’em.”
During COVID, I know Iron Smoke probably has been busy, but did you get a chance to dabble in anything you’ve been putting off, or learn new skills or hobbies?
Well, it got crazy. For one, we’re a premium product, and with COVID everyone’s buying the cheaper stuff. “Give me a handle of this, or a box of wine,” you know. And then Rochester Midland came along. Steve Brown knew them, and started making hand sanitizer, and we were able to give away like ten thousand bottles to first responders. Every city cop got a bottle of hand sanitizer, hospitals…we’re doing something with Shawn Dunwoody downtown now, with the Inner Loop, people that need more attention. That helped keep the lights on, the PPP loan, and we were able to keep our bar staff. We were filling whiskey bottles with hand sanitizer, and now it’s back to business as usual.
What makes iron smoke’s hand sanitizer the best hand sanitizer in the greater Rochester area?
You were reading the Inner Loop Blog, right? [laughs] The local Onion. They called us the best tasting hand sanitizer. We don’t want to be known for making hand sanitizers, we were gonna help the community and make some money with our partner, but we want to be known for making bourbon. And we want to be known for supporting the community, so we did, and we gave away as much as we could. But yeah, it was like “best tasting hand sanitizer Rochester.” It was funny for me, but some people took it the wrong way because we did NOT want anyone thinking you’re supposed to drink it, because it does smell kind of good to some people, I guess. But we’re really honored we got mentioned by the mighty Inner Loop, because we’re fans. Their Instagram, they’re funny.
What is an aspect of running your own business that you never imagined would be enjoyable or you’d be good at?
I enjoy everything. I think the one thing too is when you create a successful business that creates jobs for people, and you’re building your tribe. And then a person who was maybe sleeping on someone’s couch owns a house now, and that’s a cool thing. Teambuilding is great, and really just having something that you don’t feel like you’re going to work. I don’t have a job; I have a lifestyle. And that’s better, you know? My lifestyle is just this. And we’ve got a great tribe.
Do you have any pets?
Yeah, we just got a new dog, did you meet her? Riley, she’s a rescue from Tennessee. I didn’t stand a chance. We went to a dog park in Greece, and I made eye contact, and that was it. My wife found her and did all the work, and she still does all the work. It’s like having a baby. And then we’ve got Brody, our cat. He’s the dude that patrols and keeps everything under control on the outside of our house. He’s like a killing machine, leaving presents all the time. And then Amelia, who just sleeps all day. Her hunting is to look out the window and do that weird cat sound. That’s her hunting, then she’ll sleep. I don’t know, man, it’s fun.
I was going to ask about your hairstyle choices, but you’re wearing a hat today.
Well, I’ve got, with my hair it looks like Def Leppard when I put it down, but it’s like the music career. The more they try and throw you off the boat, the more I hang off the side, you know, “I’m not gone yet!” I had the high pony for a while, and now someone turned me on to these hats—Dick and Lucinda from Record Archive. They collect hats, and they got me one for my birthday, so I just wear it all the time, and it’s part of me now. The hair is still up there, what’s left of it, and it’s alright. Maybe I’ll cut it someday, but I don’t know why I don’t. There’s no reason. I wear my hat all the time now. And these stupid sideburns. I’m a silly guy, man. You know?
With your all-over-the-place life that you’ve lived, do you think that has prepared you for being a parent in a different way than somebody who grew up, got a job out of college, and just lived in Rochester their whole life?
Yeah, you know, it’s weird because we pretty much graduate high school all equal. Not everyone has the same opportunities, but we all have these starting blocks. I just ran the other way. All this stuff prepares you for being, you know, hopefully I’m being a good father and I’ll lead by example. You kind of show them the way and try not to lose your shit on them, because it’s easy to. My one son, you lose your patience. But I turned into my dad, and I’m like, “What are we, heating the neighborhood?” Because of the door open, and there’s litter, and they’re breaking everything in the house, and I realized, “Oh my god, I’m my dad.” Because I gave him hell. Before he died, he saw that happening and he got a kick out of it. He said, “Now it’s your turn” and I said, “Dad, why didn’t you tell me it was so hard?” And he said, “I don’t remember.” I think the universe picks it out of your brain so you don’t tell anybody that it’s that hard. I think with everything I’ve got on my belt, I’m not looking for anything except for to make an honest living and build the tribe, like I said. And try and be a good father, you know? Like, it’s pretty simple. I don’t feel like “I’ve got to go do this.” Maybe that’ll come back, but right now I’m just hunkered down and doing what I can do to make a go of it with my tribe.
Is there anything coming up for any of your businesses that you want to plug?
Hopefully dinner [laughs]. Yeah, next up is just we’re building our footprint. We’re working on building the brand, and we’re not gonna cheapen it for anything. Like if someone comes in and says, “We’ll take you into 5,000 stores if you drop your price by twenty percent,” we’ll say no. Because we’re premium, and we’re going to go up in quality as much as we can. For all of our products, but especially for our Iron Smoke bourbon. We have ninety-five percent score in the whiskey bible, and I’m not the kind of guy to brag that we’re the best, but I want to mention it because it’s a really cool thing for the company. Forbes magazine’s “10 Best Bourbons Beyond Kentucky” was major for a little farm distillery in Upstate New York. And I think that coming out with new products, we’re experimenting with our Rosie’s line, and trying to get through this COVID thing and just come out the other side. And back to rockin’ and rollin’ on the side of the business. It’s weird. It’s good to be home though, I’m not on a plane every week, you know? I might be getting dusty, but you’ll never see me fall from the lack of motion. Just keep pedaling.
John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, johnmwrites.com.