Before you scoff at the sudden influx of distilleries to the Charleston area — three are opening within weeks of each other this summer — think about this: It's harder to operate a distillery in Colorado than it is in South Carolina. There, you have to be located in an industrial park. Here, $2,500 gets you an annual license, which lets you distill, retail, and have tastings. You also need a federal license, but that's free.
And yet Colorado has about 40 different distilleries, while S.C. only has four in operation. Four.
And keep in mind that before the Statehouse passed laws regarding on-site sales and tastings for distilleries in 2009, a full year before breweries had their day. So while it may seem like distilleries may be same path as fro-yo and banh mi joints, in reality — it's about damn time.
"I'm actually excited there's multiple distilleries coming in," says Carlton Elliott, one of the owners of Charleston Distilling Co. "It'll be neat to have the whole community. Other micro distributors aren't really your competition when you're competing for shelf space." It's actually the big boys, the Bacardis, the Jim Beams, the Tanquerays, who they really have to look out for.
"The ideal is that if all three do really well, we can help each other," Elliott adds.
The distilleries are allowed to sell three 750-milliliter bottles to individuals each day, and they can offer three one-half ounce samples for tasting.
While you're waiting to get your hands on a bottle of locally stilled booze, read up on the people who will be making it.
Editor's note: Opening dates are tentative
Charleston Distilling Co.
(Brent E. Stephens and Carlton Elliott)
What They'll Offer: Vodka, gin, whiskey, and straight bourbon.
When: By Aug. 1
Where: 501 King St. Stephens and Elliott have a silent partner whose support allowed them to purchase the building, and it's practically the only space in that part of town that could accommodate a 20-foot-tall still. "Geographically, the King and Morris area is the heart of Upper King," Stephens says. "This is a very complementary thing to food and beverage without being the exact same thing. We have to close at 7 p.m., so we'll be open for happy hour. We'll do tastings and tours."
Why: Stephens is a former lawyer who quit to focus full time on the company, while Elliott is still practicing for the time being. They've been thinking about opening a distillery for the last five years, and when the laws changed in 2009 they decided to get serious about it. The guys started spending all their free time traveling around and learning how to make liquor; they recently returned from a gin-making stint in Colorado.
HOW THEY GOT THEIR NAME: Do we even have to explain this one? But really, it was important to Stephens and Elliott to get Charleston in the name. "Before we had anything, we had the name," Elliott says. "We were like, somebody's going to take that name, so the first thing we did was get that name and then worried about the rest."
INGREDIENTS: They plan to use all South Carolina-based products, and they're already talking to several different co-ops and distributors. Stephens and Elliott didn't want to give away any trade secrets, but they're excited about the different heirloom varieties they'll get to mess around with.
EQUIPMENT: The guys have a 2,000-liter Kothe still — one of the best in the business — for vodka and gin and a 1,000-liter still for whiskey and bourbon. They'll also use three different barrels to age the bourbon and whiskeys, and they'll have a floor-to-ceiling wall of five-gallon ones aging in the tasting room.
WHAT SETS THEM APART: Well, for one, they're a distillery in the heart of King Street. "We're really excited about doing gin and some types of gin that most people haven't had," Stephens adds. "We plan on doing Old Tom gin and some aged gins." They may also develop an in-house sweet vermouth so that they can mix up martinis and Manhattans for tasters.
(Husband-and-wife team Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall)
WHAT THEY'LL OFFER: Vodkas, gins, rums, and whiskeys
WHERE: 652 King St. Blackwell says the couple was adamant about being downtown, since they wanted to be approachable and they wanted to be able to ride their bikes to work. There aren't a lot of affordable spaces in the area with 20-foot ceilings, so the couple was discouraged when they first started looking. Still, they found themselves a pretty sweet spot: right next to foodie favorite Butcher and Bee. That fact alone should help with traffic. The parking lot will help too.
WHY: The couple used to own Immaculate Baking Co., which they sold to General Mills last year. They saw how the natural products sector was changing, and they wanted to get into something that was more local, more hands-on, and that would give them more opportunities to deal with customers face to face. Blackwell also has a homebrewing background, but since the local beer scene has plenty of players, they decided to tackle a new frontier — and distilling is basically the sister of the beer world.
HOW THEY GOT THEIR NAME: Blackwell and Marshall wanted a name that fit the industrial steampunk vibe they wanted for their overall brand. "We had this image of a tandem bike, with a man and woman riding this old school tandem bike with early 1900s clothing on this highwire, and it just sort of hit," Blackwell says. When the couple starts naming their different families of liquor, they'll all follow that same theme.
INGREDIENTS: While Blackwell agrees that sourcing local is important, and Highwire plans to do that whenever possible, he learned from his Immaculate Conception business that having the best, most interesting ingredients is more important when creating something they can put their stamp on. Consistency is also a key factor for the company. "If it's something that's local like an heirloom corn or some sort of rice or something along those lines that we could use, I'm all for it," he says. "If I can find a more sustainable, better consistent source out of South Dakota, that's where I'll buy it from. I'm not going to be stuck strictly on local. Taste and variety is going to be the first and foremost priority."
EQUIPMENT: After taking a workshop with Kothe Distilling in Chicago, Blackwell and Marshall knew they wanted one of the German company's copper stills. They're pretty pricey, but Highwire was able to pick up a gently used one from Asheville Distilling Company, where the couple recently spent a few days getting some rum and rye ready.
WHAT SETS THEM APART: Throughout Blackwell's career in food, he's taken traditional recipes and added a twist, and he's bringing that technique to Highwire. "I'm approaching it less from the science and less from the engineering," he says. "I'm looking at it more from an art-food-craft approach."
Striped Pig Distillery
(Johnny Pieper, Casey Lillie, Todd and Debbie Weiss, Jim Craig, and Boris Van Dyck)
WHAT THEY'LL OFFER: Vodkas, rums, and whiskeys
WHERE: 2225 Old School Drive (off of Azalea Drive). Their massive warehouse is up in the neck area, right off of I-26. Since it's on the way to and from the Charleston International Airport, Weiss is hoping their spot will be more convenient for tourist traffic. "We are located 10 minutes from the Market," he says. "So it seems like we're a little bit further away, but honestly it's 10 minutes. I've driven it and I drive slow sometimes." And since they're next to Icebox Bar Services — whose owner, Boris Van Dyck, is a Striped Pig partner and head of the local branch of the U.S. Bartenders Guild — they'll get direct exposure to bartenders that way. "We'll have a lot of people coming in incidentally as opposed to having the foot traffic on King Street," Weiss says.
WHY: Weiss was an athletic trainer and teacher at College of Charleston and comes from a homebrewing family. He thought about opening up a distillery two years ago, but then he was connected with Pieper and Lillie, who had a plan of their own. Since all three were on similar tracks, but hadn't gotten over the hump yet, they decided to join forces. "[Now] we're on that bike going downhill when you can't quite catch the pedals," Weiss says. "The pedals are going a little faster than our feet are going."
HOW THEY GOT THEIR NAME: "Striped Pig" is kind of like "Blind Tiger." It dates back to the pre-Prohibition Temperance movement. "The short story: The temperance people got the law passed that said you could sell alcohol but it's got to be 15 gallons or more," Weiss explains. But bars weren't able to sell that much alcohol to individual customers. So instead they got themselves a pig, painted some stripes on it, and started advertising. "You paid to see the pig and, hey, while you're here, why don't you have a free drink?"
INGREDIENTS: "We really wanted to show off South Carolina to the rest of the United States," Pieper says. "We really wanted to focus on actually not just making the spirits here in Charleston, but having the actual raw material grown here." The guys are growing their grain out at Myers Farm in Bowman, S.C., and are in talks with other area farms. They're also trying to be as green as possible — byproducts will be sent to a pig farm, which they're hoping they can exchange for some bacon.
EQUIPMENT: Striped Pig's stills were custom-made in the U.S. from steel and copper. A lot of the parts are interchangeable, which allows them more flexibility. And their barrels were custom-made too, with a specific char level that the guys think will fit their whiskeys best.
WHAT SETS THEM APART: "We picked the seeds specifically, and so it is a little more boutique in the fact that we researched the seed, we planted it in the farm that we wanted and the soil we wanted, we've got the barrels that we wanted, we customized all of the equipment to fit what we felt was best for the material, so everything's customized to us," Pieper says. "You can't buy this stuff ... All of that was something that we spent years of effort putting together, collaborating together to fit that final product that goes into the bottle."