Booze is big business in Western North Carolina these days, and everyone seems eager to cash in on the opportunity. There are 34 breweries operating now in the Asheville area, the wine scene is booming in the mountains, and the recent development of four new distilleries brings the area’s total up to seven. But in a sea of clear spirits, sometimes cloudy waters breed the most intrigue. A couple of new Asheville distillers are offering liquor with colorful stories and local roots to boot.
“This comes from a recipe I came up with years ago when I was living way out in Fairview,” says Chris Bower, owner of the Double Crown and Lazy Diamond and now one of the founders of Eda Rhyne Distillery. “I got the inspiration and said, ‘I’m going to walk out of the house today, and I’m going to make a fernet.’”
He pours a glass of inky black liquid from a clear, unlabeled bottle — a test recipe of his Appalachian fernet — and pairs it with a pour of the most famous amaro, the beloved hipster sipper Fernet Branca. At the time of his spirit’s creation, Bower lived on 60 acres in Fairview, where he foraged more than 20 wild botanicals, including spices, roots and herbs, to generate his own recipe.
Over the course of five years, he has honed that tincture into something that is astoundingly comparable in taste, color and texture to Fernet Branca. “It was all just stuff I harvested that day — roots, flowers, leaves,” he says. “It is straight up Appalachian, old-school fernet.”
Originating in Italy as a digestif over 170 years ago, fernet is a form of amaro, or sipping bitter, made from a pungent infusion of botanicals and medicinals native to a region’s interpretation of the spirit. In Italy, that means ingredients from the spice trade — saffron, mint, allspice, clove and gentian root. But for Bower and the folks at Eda Rhyne, that means mountain aromatics like spicebush and nearly 60 other hand-foraged flavors.
Beyond Eda Rhyne’s Appalachian Fernet and Forest Floor Amaro — a much lighter, sweeter offering, similar to Amaro Montenegro — the distillery plans to offer barrel-aged and herbal rye whiskey and gin and a spicebush vodka. Eventually, all of the ingredients, from the grain to the botanicals, will be sourced from co-owner and distiller Rett Murphy’s Aardvark Farm in Yancey County as well as Carolina Ground or Riverbend Malt House. The grains to distill, the botanicals to infuse, the barrels for aging — all will be Appalachian-made and regionally produced.
“We want hand-harvested medicinals in locally made spirits with local grains,” says Bower. “We want this to be Western North Carolina as f**k.”
Rooted in tradition
In Black Mountain, there’s another shiny new still just starting to warm up at Oak & Grist. William Goldberg and Russell Dodson opened their distillery to produce single-malt whiskey in the style of Scotch whisky. And the product has authentic roots — Goldberg traveled to Scotland to learn the craft from Dodson’s father.
“He’s got the basics right, it’s just down to fine-tuning,” says Edwin Dodson, Russell’s father. Edwin is a career veteran Scotch distiller for Glen Moray, Ardbeg and Glenmorangie who also helped design the three-pot still system at Woodford Reserve. “I spent nearly 50 years in this industry,” he says. “And you learn little tricks and things over time, so that is why I am here.”
“We are a grain-to-bottle distillery,” says Goldberg. “Every spirit that we make will be made from locally grown and malted grains.” These ingredients will be sourced from Riverbend Malt House.
Since traditional whiskey requires barrel-aging, Oak & Grist’s first release — Dark Rhythm Gin — will be made from the same base that goes into the company’s single-malt whiskey but will be clear and infused with juniper, coriander, lemon verbena, sumac, carrot and myriad other botanicals. In addition to gin, Goldberg and Dodson intend to produce a vintage single malt, rye whiskey and amaro, releasing them as they mature in the barrel.
Similar but different
There are some striking similarities between these two distilleries, but their methods are quite different. Both source from the same grain growers and malt house, both are using entirely local products — both even have custom-built Chinese stills.
But Oak & Grist sports a copper column still and a 250-gallon kettle in which it will make single-malt whiskey for its base. Meanwhile, Eda Rhyne boasts a Willy Wonka-looking copper column/whisky-head hybrid mounted asymmetrically on a massive kettle with a separate chamber for vapor distillation of botanicals. The company plans to make several different mash builds for its gin and whiskey. Basically, the two distilleries are employing two wildly different ways of skinning the same cat.
We are still easily a few months out from finding Eda Rhyne and Oak & Grist products on the shelves at local ABC stores. Though both distilleries have completed the federal process of approval for production, the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission is still a hurdle that must be dealt with. And after the brand is approved to create the spirits, the companies still have to sell it to the state and then to each of the 166 regional boards for distribution in their represented counties — an intimidating task for small businesses run by independent craftspeople. Bottle prices for both brands are anticipated to be just above the $30 range.
Tastings of Oak & Grist’s products are available by setting up an appointment with the distiller. But Bower, Murphy and the other Eda Rhyne co-owners, Andrew Bertone and Pierce Harmon, are still in the midst of launching the business. The partners are running an Indie GoGo campaign to try to pick up the funding needed to complete the final steps in getting their program off the ground.
“The whole concept of terroir is what is driving this whole idea, and that includes the water, the grains, the heirloom corn. … It’s really why we are doing this in the first place,” Bower says of the homegrown nature of the spirits. “When you talk about terroir, this fernet was started in my backyard. It has a real story; it has a place where it came from.”
For details about Oak & Grist, visit oakandgrist.com. To learn more about Eda Rhyne Distillery, visit edarhyne.com. To support Eda Rhyne’s fundraising efforts, look for “Eda Rhyne Distillery” at indiegogo.com.