Tammy Soma Clark isn’t running rum when she’s driving her rum runner.
When she takes her modified race car out for competition, she leaves the rum either fermenting or resting in barrels at ApplesRus, the distillery and orchard she and her husband, Jay Clark, own northeast of Rochester.
Her distillery was born out of necessity. The orchard was intended to be a retirement project for the couple. However, losing money in the operation wasn’t part of the plan. Sending apples to retailers wasn't paying off.
“We were getting 10 cents per pound of apples,” Soma Clark said. “I figured I could do a lot better than that.”
To make the operation more profitable, Soma Clark turned to the roots of another area in which she excels — modified car racing. The origins of that sport are rooted in moonshiners modifying cars to move their wares and stay a step ahead of law enforcement.
She received her state distillery license in 2018, a year after she was given the nod at the federal level. It’s the only licensed distillery in Olmsted County and one of the few orchards able to do more than make cider.
It turns out running an orchard is a leg up on their competition.
“You won’t see large distilleries do it this way, because the cider is too expensive to buy,” Soma Clark said.
The resulting liquor is smoother and more flavorful than comparable spirits, in part because it’s made from fresh apple juice, said Jeremy Soma, Soma Clark’s son.
ApplesRus makes apple rum and has its second-ever batch of brandy fermenting. It’s a value-added product, but it takes a lot of apples to make liquor. Soma Clark pointed to 40 gallons of brandy in the distillery resting in barrels. More than 5,000 pounds of apples went into that batch, she said.
Generally, it takes 16 pounds of apples to make a gallon of cider. That gallon would produce only about a pint of brandy.
During harvest season, Soma Clark steps away from racing. She has already scaled back to competing on Saturdays at the Deer Creek Speedway near Spring Valley.
“I have so much to do, I’m lucky to make it to Deer Creek,” she said. “But this takes precedence right now.”
She said she missed competing in the annual United States Modified Touring Series Fall Jamboree there because there was too much to do at the orchard and distillery at the time it was held last month.
“We’re pretty busy this time of year,” she said.
It might be apple-picking season at the orchard, but Jay Clark and Soma Clark said they would rather have their seasonal help pick them for you.
For one, they need to get their value from their mechanized picker, which was imported from Holland.
More importantly, the way each tree is set up with a support trellis, tugging on an apple could damage the tree branches, Soma Clark said.
With more than 13,000 apple trees, anything to make the operation more efficient is welcome. The orchard features five varieties of apples, including First Kiss, SweeTango, Zestar, Honeycrisp, McIntosh and RiverBelle.
Most of the people who show up to help pick are in their 60s or older.
“It’s something to do, and it gets me off the couch,” said Don Walterman, who was picking Zestar apples Sunday with his wife, Donna.
“We knew we weren’t going to have them using ladders and bags,” Soma Clark said.
The picker is just one of the tools they have added to their operation over the years to make jobs there go easier and faster.
Their sorting machine processes thousands of apples, and sorts them into retail apples and juicing apples based on their quality. An imager with 15 mirrors and three cameras quickly assesses the quality of each apple as they’re processed.
Once they started distilling, that operation has also required specialized tools — some purchased and some improvised out of necessity.
The fermenters needed larger-volume airlocks. When the distillery started making a higher-proof rum with the addition of molasses, the standard airlocks were turning into miniature geysers, Jeremy Clark said.
“We’re always finding better ways to do things,” Soma Clark said.
Does that mean she’ll return to racing more?
“We’ll see,” she said. “But we’re just really getting going on this.”