Going from playing guitar for globally known 80’s band (Modern English) to becoming one of the founders of Iron Smoke Distillery may seem like an unusual path, but for Tommy Brunett it has been a natural progression. The hard work and dedication he put in on guitar riffs is equal to his attention to detail on both the Iron Smoke and Rattlesnake Rosie’s brands, and he’s visiting Villain & Saint on March 21st for a night of Villains, Saints, & Whiskey”. Expect copious amounts of live music and whiskey poured, as Brunett himself performs a live set throughout Chef Jorge Baretto’s four-course feast, paired with cocktails inspired by Iron Smoke Distillery. We sat down with Tommy Brunett to talk about his memories from the Modern English days, what it took for him to get to the top of the whiskey industry, and what lessons he’s taken from the music industry that have perfected his whiskey game.


How does a rock-n-roll guitarist with the band Modern English go on to become one of the people behind Iron Smoke Distillery? 

Tommy Burnett: It is crazy! I was living in New York City in 2008 and the bottom fell out of the economy. I decided to move back to Rochester NY where I am from to regroup, and maybe go to Nashville and pick up a tour or something. We rented a house and I was in the backyard smoking ribs and drinking whiskey and my kids were in diapers. I thought of putting two great American pastimes together; great American barbecue and great American bourbon making. I figured out a way to smoke some of the grains and it was a really unique idea.


A couple people were doing it out in the Midwest that were really overstocking the grains, and I just wanted a really light hint of that applewood smoked goodness on there. It worked and we came out with it and it sold out in about two weeks, 300 cases, after our distributor told us that it would take a year. We built a farm distillery and are New York State certified and are one of the most sought-after and highest rated bourbons in the world right now. Forbes gave us one of the top ten bourbons beyond Kentucky and we are in eleven states now. I did a dinner at Ocean before Covid, and I have relationships and love everyone there. On March 21st at the Villain & Saint event, I’ll bring my guitar and I intertwine the stories and the guitar playing. We get everyone singing Johnny Cash songs when they get loosened up and it’s a really fun time.


As time went on, what was it like to transfer your passion for music onto whiskey, or are you able to keep a balance for both? 


TB: The good thing is that I tell people that I am a musician that found a loophole (laughs)! I don’t have to tour, I can be home with my family. I got The Tommy Brunett Band, that is like Johnny Cash meets rock. We are a solid opener, groups like ZZ Top likes us and we have played with The Lumineers. We get up there and preach about the whiskey and go through out sets, and it all works out really well and is a great mix. We have a great team around us, and it takes a village to make one bottle of booze, especially bourbon.


MC: Your appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon still is a unique and for you, a probably incredibly memorable moment. 


TB: Oh yeah, he has actually come out to our distillery. I became friends with him through other friends, and that is the night that Post Malone, myself and Jimmy Fallon hung out. It was ridiculous, we ended up in a tiny Irish bar in Manhattan playing songs. I didn’t know who Post Malone was, but he knew the words to every song we were throwing down. From Neil Diamond to Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton to Frank Sinatra, he knew the words to everything! It was so refreshing and he deserves every little bit of success he has gotten.


MC: When you see others partnering with a liquor company and you conversely are putting in the hard work on the ground level, can it ever be frustrating for you?


TB: When someone comes out with a fifteen year old bourbon and they opened their distillery four years ago, yeah. We have things like the Rosie’s line, which is premium. We have apple pie, maple bacon, and we just came out with a chocolate peanut butter pie bourbon cream that people are freaking out about. We have two lines and we never cut corners, we make everything ourselves. We are a farm distillery and we know all of our farmers, they’re all within a fifty mile rads, they’re all New York State farmers. We have a hammer mill on site, so we crush the grains fresh on site, which a lot of people don’t do; that is the difference between a French press and Sanka, you want the fresh ground (laughs). We know the barrel makers from the Adirondacks and the wood comes from the Midwest, and it is naturally dried, not kiln dried. We take the little steps to make the best product that we can. We are really proud that we make everything in house, not adding stuff and cutting corners.


MC: Traveling with Modern English in the 1980’s you probably learned quickly that hard work pays off and there is not a quick path to success. 


TB: I couldn’t have said it better myself. We did a partnership with John Petrucci of the band Dream Theater and he was looking for someone to do a bourbon with. He chose ours because he liked the strength, and he said “it is like being a musician, you are always striving for perfection”. That is our approach to the bourbon so it is really familiar. You can’t just go out and be good, you have to learn everything about it.


MC: As someone so well-known as the guitarist for Modern English on the road, you still must get people that are such massive fans and filled with such nostalgia…


TB: Yeah, it definitely doesn’t hurt. I was the touring guitar player, that was my first lucky break, they were all from England. The song “I Melt With You” was starting to really grow and become a hit. I got a call to audition and a week later, it was the Today Show, The Tonight Show, 30,000 people a night, it truly changed my life. That was the lucky break that they talk about. I love that song and I am proud to be in the band and the singer Robbie Grey taught me a lot. I never leave a wedding without playing that song. I was literally making a record and eating a Snickers bar for lunch and half for dinner. I got the call to audition, walked in, and David Bowie was rehearing in the studio next door; it was like “don’t blow this one dude”! I got in and Robbie took me under his wing and made it easy on me.


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