Finding their niche

Are you ready for this, WNC? Looks like there's a new craft-beverage producer ready to set up shop — and it's not about beer this time. Liz Kenemer, her husband Kerry Kenemer and her brother-in-law, Jeff Bryan, are looking to open a distillery — and feel like Asheville is primed and ready to support one. Liz recently took some time out from planning to answer some questions for Xpress.

In good spirits: Asheville is poised to get a craft gin and whiskey distillery. Liz Kenemer is one of the partners. Photo by michael muller

Xpress: Tell me about the Hemlock Distillery.

Liz: We're trying to start a craft distillery and are hoping to be the first in Asheville. It's a new-ish part of the industry. They're popping up all over the country, particularly on the coasts, though you're starting to see more in the middle. There are a couple in North Carolina, already … Gin and whiskey are the two products that we're starting out with.

What made you decide to get into distilling?

I have a culinary background … I've just been looking for some kind of niche for myself since I've been (in Asheville) — I was hoping to find a product that I could make here instead of working in the restaurant industry. I hadn't really thought about making spirits before, but once I started reading about other people doing it, it just seemed like such a cool idea. I've been doing all kinds of research and getting really excited about it.

What's your culinary background?

I went to school in Cambridge, Mass. I graduated in '97 and have worked as a private chef and in restaurants in Boston and Atlanta. Since I've been (in Asheville) I've been freelancing, helping people with cookbooks, testing recipes and that sort of thing.

What experience do you have with distilling?

Not a whole lot. With regulations as they are, you're not allowed to practice at home — home-brewing and making wine at home are things that are allowed in this country, but you cannot distill legally.

We've been to a workshop held by a company that makes stills, and we're going to be going through a lot of further training before we get a still. Once you get a still, generally the company that you buy from will come and help you make your first run. After that, it's just a lot of product testing.

Where will you be located?

We looked out at Black Mountain, and we're also looking at Asheville. We'd like to be connected to Asheville — that's sort of where my heart is. One thing we'd love to do is be near a brewery — somewhere in downtown Asheville, near the sort of unofficial brewery district in the southern part of downtown; that area is interesting to us.

This is exciting. We might as well put a wall around Western North Carolina. We have meat, we have beer — and now we have booze.

Yes, as we've been going out on the town, we've started talking to restaurant owners and bartenders about our idea, and they all seem really excited about being able to put a local product on their bar menus. Making signature cocktails and all of that — that's sort of the fun part about all of the hard work that we're putting into this right now.

It seems like people would be extremely supportive of this effort — you see how supportive people are of the beer scene.

Yes, that's just one of the reasons that we think that this would be such a great idea here. I think that the community would really get behind us.

Any different flavors of liquors in the works?

I'd like to start with a classic gin. I'm also interested in the newer style — in the industry they call it the new western style —  it might be a bit more floral and herbal. You still have to have juniper in it for it to be gin. We're thinking about liqueurs of some kind. Another thing that's interesting to me is Grappa. You're basically recycling a byproduct of wine making … We really want to focus on local ingredients as much as we can.

Can a distillery have a tasting room like a winery or brewery?

The state does not allow that so far.

What styles of whiskey are you planning?

We're looking at a white whiskey, which is not really moonshine, but an un-aged whiskey that you could make from any type of grain. Moonshine is typically made from corn — you can find white whiskeys out there made from rye or wheat, or any number of grain. We want to try and make a white rye, and then take some of that whiskey and age it in barrels for a few years so that it becomes a dark whiskey — it would be a before-and-after kind of product. The white whiskey would be almost a neutral spirit, almost like a vodka with a light flavor profile to it.

This is going to bring cocktails to a whole new level. Are you excited to be providing something that no one else has yet in Asheville?

Yes, it is exciting. Since we've become interested in this idea, we've become real cocktail hounds ourselves. We've been trying new recipes several times a week and having lots of fun with that aspect of it.

Sounds like tough research.

I'm just trying to figure out how to write that part off.

How long before you're in full swing?

I'm guessing it will be early 2011 before we're actually producing anything. We can't apply for our federal permit until we have our lease and our still at least ordered. Then, that process takes at least 90 days. The stills we are looking at come from Germany, so they'll have to be shipped overseas. A major thing is just getting the still in place.

What's the most exciting thing about this endeavor to you?

Digging into the community … The idea of finding our niche in the community and being a part of it.

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One thought on “Finding their niche

  1. msholin

    Surprised there are no comments on this wonderful and exciting news. Congrats and Good Luck! Asheville will support you and we are sure to help with your success! Bring it ONE!

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