Apronomics: Ian VanDam

Business is a family affair for beverage entrepreneur Ian VanDam, who originally considered a law career after graduating from college three years ago. At the time, his mother, Kelley Hall-Barr, was launching the Webster Groves home and gift store, Civil Alchemy, and VanDam pitched in on the effort. He enjoyed the venture so much that it caused a bit of a detour in his career path. “I wanted to help my mom get the store off the ground,” he says. “I ended up sticking around, and now, we have the store and a new company, Truly Floral Spirits, which makes floral-infused gin.”

According to VanDam, the liquor business was a direct outgrowth of the retail one. His mom had been making small batches of infused gin to sell at Civil Alchemy, and customers were receptive, so they partnered with Distillery of Defiance to produce it on a larger scale. Truly Floral Blue Gin, their inaugural product, includes notes of violet, lavender, juniper, elderflower and other botanicals. It’s the first in a series of three and currently is sold at 45 restaurants, bars and stores in Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis—including Civil Alchemy and the Frisco Barroom restaurant in Webster Groves, which Kelley owns with husband John Barr.

Truly Floral Pink is set to debut soon with a different botanical recipe, this one including rose, geranium and hibiscus. The third gin will be unveiled later. VanDam says the intent is to bring fresh, versatile flavors to a variety of cocktails (serving suggestions are available at trulyfloral.com). Experimenting with different botanicals has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, he notes. “You really learn a lot about your original product when you’re developing the next one,” he says. “You may realize that it’s even more versatile than you imagined. The bright floral flavors play really well with taste profiles we wouldn’t have thought of, like bitter and citrus cocktails, gin fizzes and tropical recipes. It’s a lot like creating different aromas for coffees and figuring out which flavors go well together. It’s been fun to demystify what a floral gin can be.”

He says the family businesses are a good fit for his skills and interests because he’s had an affinity for the consumer trade since he was young. “Somehow, I’ve always felt emotionally attached to the retail concepts of yesteryear,” he explains. “I used to tell friends that my dream was to open a department store. I also worked in the restaurant and bar industry in college, so I knew that if my other career plans didn’t happen,  I could fall back on this kind of thing and enjoy it.”

Truly Floral also gives him a chance to further the environmental sustainability values that Civil Alchemy embodies. “One motive behind our companies is to create things that are functional and practical for everyday life,” he says. “That includes minimizing single-use plastics and other materials that are harmful to the environment.”

VanDam says the beverage business continues to be a learning experience for him. “We recently went to the Ginworld festival here in St. Louis, and it was great exposure for Truly Floral,” he explains. “We met potential customers and got to see what other makers are doing in an engaging rather than competitive way. This is a friendly, creative, diverse industry. The greatest compliment we get is when people ask for more information about our products; it reaffirms that this is something worth doing.”

These days, VanDam describes his life as a very fulfilling sort of busy. “It’s a blast,” he says of his work. “We have our hands full with the store and gin brand, but we also are looking at new products to develop.” He admits that family-run businesses come with challenges, but he and his mom have the kind of relationship that makes it worthwhile and enjoyable. “Being a mother-son team means that we not only hold similar views and values but also can be ourselves,” he explains. “We like the same visual aesthetics, for example. And if we disagree on an idea and need to battle it out, we can do that without damaging our relationship. Having unconditional love and respect means we can argue but still get together for a nice dinner later on. It’s fun to work with family. It feels very natural.”

aviation cocktail »
2 oz Truly Floral Blue Gin
1/2 oz Maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz Creme de Violette or Creme Yvette
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice

Place all ingredients in a cocktail mixer with ice, and shake. Strain into a glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry if desired.

Photos: Bill Barrett