Food & Drink

Craft distilleries go beyond moonshine in NC

John Benefiel, left and Chris Mendler make drinks during a tasting tour at the Raleigh Rum Company's distillery in northeast Raleigh.
John Benefiel, left and Chris Mendler make drinks during a tasting tour at the Raleigh Rum Company's distillery in northeast Raleigh.

In May, Chris Mendler, Matt Grossman and John Benefiel delivered the first batch of their Raleigh Rum Co. rum to the state warehouse for sale.

That was 600 bottles of the white rum with a pirate skull label. Mendler thought they’d probably need to make more in a month or so.

It sold out in 21/2 weeks.

The second batch lasted five days.

“We’re already having trouble meeting the demand,” Mendler said. “We’ve ordered another still so we can double our production.”

Coming next week: Watch for the debut of Spirit Forward, Kevin Gavagan’s new column on cocktails and craft distilling in Charlotte.

After the boom in craft breweries, it looks like North Carolinans are more than ready for craft distilling. The legal kind, that is.

The first since Prohibition was Piedmont Distillers in 2005. The Madison distillery trades on the state’s history of illegal moonshine making by offering similar products. The company based its first offerings on family recipes from NASCAR racing great Junior Johnson.

You do know that’s how NASCAR got started, right? By guys in souped-up cars running ’shine down from the hills who had to drive fast enough to avoid the sheriff.

Actually, distilling in North Carolina goes back at least to the 18th century, when Moravian settlers in Winston-Salem produced both liquor and beer on the site of what is now Old Salem.

Today, there are 33 licensed distilleries in the state, according to the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission, with several pending approval. About 30 of those have opened in the last five years.

Many of the distilleries take the moonshine route of white liquor, Mason jars and fruit flavorings as they play on the state’s colorful history. Others are exploring traditional spirits such as gin, rum and aged whiskeys.

“Grain to glass” is a buzzword as many use North Carolina-grown ingredients, such as local wheat for vodka. In Pittsboro, Fair Game Beverage Co. is making No’Lasses rum from locally sourced sorghum instead of the traditional molasses. Local sweet potatoes are the base for Covington Vodka, made in Snow Hill.

The quick growth of distilleries is especially surprising considering the myriad of exacting state and federal regulations and permits that makers face as they try to get started.

Two years ago, Andrew Porter and his wife, Liz, decided they wanted to open a craft distillery in Charlotte.

“We’re getting close now,” Andrew Porter said. “We have the federal permits and are working on county inspections. We hope to open sometime in August.”

During his studies in chemical engineering at Clemson University, Porter learned that the process of making beer was very similar to those for making liquor.

“The first step in making good whiskey, you have to make good beer. The steps are all related,” he said.

He originally thought about starting a microbrewery because his father – the Doc of Doc Porter’s – was an avid homebrewer. Then he saw breweries popping up like mushrooms, while there were still relatively few distilleries.

Like most craft distillers, he wanted to make what he likes to drink.

“I’m big into whiskey, and in the end, that’s what I want to make. It will have to age two years, so I need something to do in the meantime, and vodka is quicker to make,” he said. “Gin is becoming an exciting thing for craft distillers, too, and I’m working on a gin recipe.”

Southern Artisan Spirits in Kings Mountain, which makes Cardinal Gin, is practically a granddaddy in the field. The company was the state’s third licensed distillery and put its first gin on the market in 2010.

“When we started, there was nobody doing this. Now it’s gone crazy,” said Charlie Mauney, co-owner.

Mauney said there’s more competition for shelf space in state ABC stores, and a nationwide shortage of oak barrels is making it difficult to produce aged liquors. He said Cardinal Gin sales have risen every year and he expects to sell 5,000 cases in about 10 states in 2015.

In addition to white and aged gins, Mauney plans to begin producing rye and bourbon, and add distillery tours.

Several factors may be contributing to the state’s quick growth in small distilleries.

It’s a logical extension of the wine and beer industries, said Scott Maitland, vice president of the 24-member N.C. Distillers Association and proprietor of TOPO Distillery and Top of the Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Chapel Hill. The association assists distillers and looks at issues that affect the industry in the state.

History plays a part as well, as does the general resurgence in finely crafted cocktails. But the largest impetus may be the continuing interest in eating and shopping locally.

“People want to know where what they’re eating and drinking comes from, and some people are very interested in keeping their money local,” Maitland said.

The “grain to glass” idea mirrors “farm to fork” with use of locally sourced ingredients and support for the state’s farmers. Maitland said he sources ingredients for TOPO’s vodka, whiskey and gin from within 100 miles of the distillery, and that the opportunity to be organic is also a plus. The distillery opened in 2012, and now is on track to sell 6,000 cases a year.

Also, TOPO may be the vanguard of another emerging trend.

“The next wave is going to be that a lot of craft breweries will start distilling, because they have the equipment and can do fermentation easily,” said Mendler of Raleigh Rum Co.

The process is so similar that you can now get a degree in distilling that covers both beer and liquor making at several colleges, including Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Appalachian State University.

Starting a distillery is an expensive proposition. Instead of spending money upfront on distilling equipment and raw ingredients, some makers purchase alcohol in bulk then put their efforts into flavorings.

Donald McIntyre knew about distilling – he was an organic chemist until layoffs hit. But what he didn’t know was how much it would cost to start up his dream job of making limoncello. So he went the bulk supplier route and started Seventy Eight ºC Spirits in Raleigh. He’s making limoncello, jalapeno limoncello and a fall seasonal blood orange version, and hopes to ship in a couple of weeks.

McIntyre said he went with the liqueur because nothing like it was being made locally, and he likes it. His version is a little less sweet than typical limoncello, which is made from fresh lemons, alcohol and sugar.

But starting a distillery isn’t exactly a cruise on the high seas, even if the product is selling well and Mendler gets to work with old buddies from Apex High School.

“I’m waiting for the fun to start,” Mendler said. “It’s all just work right now.”

N.C. liquor store laws

In North Carolina, alcoholic beverages like vodka, rum and gin – technically called “spirituous liquor” – are sold through stores run by local Alcoholic Beverage Control boards. Liquor cannot be sold in other stores, such as supermarkets; you have to look for the store with the big red ABC sign.

The state founded the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission in 1937 to rein in the illegal alcohol trade that Prohibition had fostered and allow voters to decide if they want liquor sold in their home counties. Local ABC boards operate the ABC stores and sell the liquor, and the state commission oversees the boards.

There are around 423 ABC stores in 99 counties. The one remaining dry county: Graham.

The state ABC Commission must approve all the liquor that is sold in North Carolina. Manufacturers deliver the liquor to a central warehouse in Raleigh; they can’t send it directly to the stores.

Local ABC boards decide what approved products to stock and order from the state warehouse, then boards pay the producers directly, according to Agnes Stevens, public affairs director for the ABC Commission.

Distillers set the products’ prices, then a standard markup is added. Products cost the same in every ABC store.

Customers can special order products that are not on the state-approved sales list, but the minimum order is one case.

According to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, 17 states use some form of the ABC model.

In June, the North Carolina legislature passed a law allowing distilleries, starting Oct. 1, to sell one bottle of alcohol directly to a customer per year, so that visitors can take home a souvenir from distillery tours. Distilleries will have to keep detailed electronic records to ensure that customers don’t exceed the limit.

“Distilleries are becoming a great economic engine for the state of North Carolina,” said Sen. Rick Gunn of Burlington, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We want to help promote their business. (The bill is) critical to help with the bottom line.”

Debbie Moose

Triangle-area distilleries

Barrister & Brewer, Durham. Mystic, a spiced bourbon liqueur.

Broadslab Distillery, Benson. Moonshine-style corn whiskey, and white and spiced rums.

Brothers Vilgalys, Durham. Krupnikas, a Lithuanian-style spiced honey liqueur.

Covington Spirits, Snow Hill: Vodka made from North Carolina sweet potatoes.

Durham Distillery, Durham. Gin.

Fair Game Beverage Co., Pittsboro. Apple brandy, and rum made from sorghum.

Pebble Brook Spirits, Durham. Apple pie liqueur.

Raleigh Rum Co., Raleigh. White and aged rums.

Seventy Eight ºC Spirits, Raleigh. Limoncello, jalapeno limoncello and blood orange limoncello.

TOPO Organic Spirits, Chapel Hill. Vodka, whiskey and gin.

On the horizon: The owners of The Rickhouse event space and Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom locations hope to open a distillery at 609 Foster St., Durham by late 2015. Primarily whiskey and rum.

Charlotte-area distilleries

Carolina Distillery, Lenoir. Moonshine-style corn whiskey and brandy.

Doc Porter’s Craft Spirits, Charlotte. Vodka. Opening in August.

Muddy River Distillery, Belmont. Rum including Queen Charlotte’s Reserve.

Southern Artisan Spirits, Kings Mountain. Cardinal Gin, rye and whiskey.

Southern Grace Distilleries, Concord. Moonshine-style corn whiskey and flavored moonshine.