Spirited business: The growth of microdistilleries

COMING OF AGE: Blue Ridge Distilling Co.'s Defiant single-malt whiskey and Carolina Distillery's Carriage House Apple Brandy are two brands of aged spirits made just outside the Asheville area that are becoming popular with bartenders at local craft cocktail spots. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Microdistilling in North Carolina is booming. Since 2005, more than a dozen distilleries have popped up, steaming off a wide array of flavors. Locally, Troy & Sons has garnered plenty of attention, as has Howling Moon. Like most Western North Carolina distilleries, they’ve mainly focused on moonshine: straight corn liquor, usually served clear and unaged. Lately, though, a few new labels have been finding their way onto WNC cocktail menus. Hailing from a little farther east in the foothills, these distillers have been taking their time to produce elegant, aged spirits.

No need to hide

It’s a dreary, rainy morning, and Lenoir looks like a ghost town, with an abandoned theater still clinging to a few random letters clinging on its display. Once home to thriving manufacturing industries, the town has seen most of those jobs move away. But right in the heart of downtown, a new economy has sprouted: booze.

“We don’t call ourselves moonshiners, but we’re using a lot of the same methods,” says Tim “Hippy” Sisk, head distiller and co-owner of Carolina Distillery. The operation, which opened in 2008, recently moved into a building shared with Howard Brewing Co. “There are a lot of people calling [their products] moonshine, and they’re not using the same methods that the ’shiners did. But we just wanted to do something a little different with those same old methods.”

Carolina Distillery is probably best known for its signature Carriage House Apple Brandy, made with apples from the Perry Lowe Orchards, just up the road.

“We start with apple juice. It takes about 10 to 14 days to make apple wine, and then we cook it and make apple brandy,” Sisk explains. “We really use the same process that the old-timers did. We’re using steam to cook with, and we don’t have to hide from the law. That’s pretty much the only difference.” After distillation, the brandy is aged for a year — a costly endeavor for a small business, considering that 1,000 gallons of apple wine yields a mere 150 gallons of brandy.

The three-story former Roses department store that houses both Howard Brewing and Carolina Distillery includes a large event space, which is bringing some life back to the downtown. Most recently, the facility hosted a national tattoo convention. “All those guys with TV shows were here,” says distillery co-owner Keith Nordan. “It was a different kind of crowd for the people of Lenoir!”

Ashevilleans can pick up some Carriage House Apple Brandy for the home bar at any area ABC store or sample some mixed into a creative libation at a local craft cocktail bar. Over at Sovereign Remedies on North Market Street, Katey Ryder is shaking up the Orgeat Zha Gabor Hot Toddy. Ask for the upgrade to Carriage House to get the full effect of the apple brandy, pear brandy, lemon, orgeat and black walnut bitters.

Speeding things up

Meanwhile, over in Bostic, Tim Ferris and his wife, Lauren Kuchar, are loading barrels into the Blue Ridge Distilling Co.’s massive new tasting room, the former dining hall at Camp Golden Valley. The Girl Scout camp closed in 2013 and sat vacant until the distillery recently bought it. The 550-acre property includes dozens of cabins, treehouses, wilderness campsites and the camp’s former dining hall, which serves as a tasting room and gift shop for the distillery.

“One building at a time, we’re going to start revamping them to make them a little higher-end, instead of just campy,” says Ferris. “We’ll rent them out so people can come in and have a cabin for a week on the distilling grounds, relax, go fishing, sit on the porch and drink whiskey, and forget that the world is chaotic.”

Ferris says he never wanted to make a white whiskey. Due to the original distillery’s small size, however, he needed to move product quickly, so for the company’s Defiant single-malt whiskey, he turned to a method that’s similar to what Maker’s Mark uses to age its Maker’s 46: staves. The long oak spirals are designed to mature the whiskey like a tea bag in a fraction of the more than four years it takes bourbon to age in barrels.

“Using spirals allowed us to immediately release whiskey, but it became such a signature flavor,” says Ferris. “We will always do Defiant on spirals, but we’re going to start doing some other stuff, too, like select casks.”

In fact, some product has already been aging for two years in the new bottling facility’s barrel room, leaving it just a year away from release.

Taking the plunge

Distilling, though, isn’t the couple’s principal business. Defiant Marine, their deep-sea salvage company, got its start in December 2010 rescuing a wrecked cargo ship off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, just as the Arab Spring was throwing off its first sparks. Ferris’ deepest dive was 560 feet, and his longest job was 38 days, including seven days of decompression before returning to the surface.

“It’s been experience after experience after experience, and it got to the point where coming home was the biggest letdown of all,” he says. “When you’re away, all you can think about is getting home, but when you get home, you’re there for 24 hours and you’re ready to go again. That led me to start the distillery.” If nothing else, it was a way to steady his and his crew’s restless hands.

On the distillery side, Defiant’s name befits its unique status: It’s one of only six American single-malt whiskeys.

“I decided we would take the best American barley we could find, the best equipment we could find,” says Ferris. “Take the best methodology from beer-making, the best methodology from distilling, the best methodologies from aging and finishing, and then we’ll discover what our product is, rather than trying to steer it in a certain direction. And that’s still happening.”

It’s the experience

Recently featured as the exclusive liquor served at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show, Defiant has been written up in the Huffington Post and the Whiskey Reviewer. And on Oct. 2, Blue Ridge opened its new tasting room.

Up in Spruce Pine, Nate Allen of Spoon Cocktail Lounge, an extension of the destination restaurant Knife & Fork, uses Defiant in a cocktail called Rage Against the Dying of the Light. “It has Defiant, NuMex chile syrup, pressed Virginia Beauty apple cider, Lemorton Pommeau de Normandie and a few dashes of spicebush bitters,” Allen explains. “I’m selling it like crazy and turning a lot of people on to Defiant neat.”

Back in Bostic, Ferris and Kuchar are ready for some calmer experiences after years of deep-sea dives. “Whiskey should be an experience: It’s complex,” Ferris maintains. “For me, whiskey has always complemented already-good experiences, and we want to build an experience around our brand.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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