While explosive may not be the best word to associate with distilling, the industry’s growth in North Carolina is certainly booming.
There are 68 licensed distilleries in the state, according to the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Two years ago, there were roughly half that many.
“It’s always going to be part of who we are as a state,” said Melissa Katrincic, vice president of the N.C. Distiller’s Association. She points to the 540 distilleries in North Carolina before Prohibition as evidence of the longtime Tar Heel love of spirits.
“The agricultural wealth of what is grown in this state — from grain to fruit — there’s so much here at our disposal to ferment,” she said. “There’s an excitement about returning to those roots.”
Those roots may have been soaked in moonshine, but Katrincic, who owns Durham Distillery with her husband, Lee, is excited about the variety and quality of spirits coming out of North Carolina.
Katrincic has loved gin since she was a child and her grandfather would slip her the olives out of his martini. Even the name of their flagship spirit is tied to childhood memories. When she would get testy, her grandmother would tell her not to have a conniption.
“On the back of the bottle, Lee came up with the tagline: ‘Go ahead, have a conniption.’ You’re always going to remember the name,” she said. “It’s fun and tongue in cheek.”
Their Conniption Gin has earned kudos in several international competitions, and their company was voted the second best gin distillery nationwide in USA Today’s 2016 readers’ choice awards.
“Craft spirits is speaking to the idea of not drinking more, but drinking up. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,” she said.
Apex High grads Matt Grossman, John Benefiel and Chris Mendler of Raleigh Rum are making their case for that very thing — holding regular Saturday tastings to convince visitors to spend a little more on a quality local product.
“A lot of people in this area, they’re pretty unique in that they like their local stuff,” said Grossman.
“We’re not trying to push down any of the other guys, but if we’re going to grow, we need to take it from the Bacardis and the other big guys.”
The three wanted to launch a craft brewery for years, but by the time they were ready to make the dream a reality, breweries were everywhere in the Triangle. There were not many craft distillers, however.
So after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 and a lot of experimenting, the partners launched their business with a bang in April 2015. Their first batch of white rum — 600 bottles — sold out in two and half weeks. The second batch lasted five days.
This initial success allowed them to buy a second still and increase production. In addition to the white rum, Raleigh Rum now makes a spiced rum and a sweet, dark rum. A hot pepper rum, to be called Carolina Reaper, is also in the works.
With these products, the partners hope to expand their regional presence. Despite recent industry growth, North Carolina spirits make up far less than one percent of total sales at the ABC stores, Grossman says.
“People come here whether on vacation or they have a free Saturday and there’s always someone who is so happy that we’re local,” adds Benefiel. “We want the North Carolina market. It’s important to us.”
In the spirit
Mark Doble, founder of Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, says his recently-launched Gold Leaf Distilling Company is a natural progression from his other business.
“We’re already doing half the process with the brewing, we might as well finish off and distill it,” he said. “As a producer of alcoholic beverages, I think it’s natural for a brewery to grow into these things.”
Spell Maker Vodka, a wheat-based spirit, should be in ABC stores by mid-August, Doble says. Tasting tours of the distillery will begin around the same time. Other Gold Leaf products in the pipeline are a habanero vodka to come in October, and a spiced rum by the end of the year.
He says enjoying the process is also important.
“A lot of people approach the product development from a market standpoint and try to fill a need. We just do things because we like to do them,” he said.
“Distilling is extremely interactive — it’s bubbling away, there’s columns full of ethanol, there’s the danger of explosion. It’s a lot more fun.”
Brewing and distilling
Beer and spirits start with fermentation, when yeast converts sugars in grain, fruit or vegetables into alcohol.
Beverages such as beer, wine, sake and cider end with fermentation. These all have a relatively low alcohol content, typically less than 15 percent.
To make a distilled spirit or liquor, the fermented liquid is heated in the closed pot of a still. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the concentrated alcohol vapor rises from the heated liquid first. As this vapor cools, it condenses into liquid ethanol which is then collected for consumption.
Distillers welcome new rules for on-site sales
With the recent passage of State Bill 155, aka the Brunch Bill, distillers are now allowed to sell up to five bottles per person per year during tours of their facility.
Area distillers welcome the change, saying it will help build momentum for regional products and small businesses.
“For the ABC to allow that is just great. They really understand the needs of distillers,” said Mark Doble, founder of Gold Leaf Distilling. “It’s just like the brewing industry — having that taproom is vital to the success of the brewery. Allowing us to sell five bottles is just awesome.”
Melissa Katrincic at Durham Distillery calls the law a “game-changer,” saying it will improve her visitors’ experience.
“When I have people from out of town who might be staying in downtown Durham, and they want to bring three bottles home, I want to be able to tell them that they can,” she said.
Visitors may buy one bottle of Conniption Gin, she says, then their second bottle might be a seasonal, small batch liqueur.
Most distillery sales will still come through the state-controlled ABC system and county-run ABC stores.
Thirsty for a taste of the growing North Carolina spirit scene? These craft distilleries in and around the Triangle offer tours and tastings.
Raleigh Rum Company
1100 Corporation Parkway, No. 132, Raleigh
Products: White rum, dark rum, spiced rum
Tours: Saturdays at 2 p.m.
Seventy-eight C Spirits
2660 Discovery Drive #136, Raleigh
Products: Limoncello, Jalapeno Limoncello, Blood Orangecello
Tours: By appointment
1053 E. Whitaker Mill Road, Raleigh
Product: Carolina moonshine whiskey
Tours: Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m.
TOPO Organic Spirits
505 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Products: Piedmont Gin, vodka, Carolina moonshine whiskey, Eight Oak Carolina Whiskey
Tours: Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturday afternoons
711 Washington St., Durham
Products: Conniption Gin (American Dry and Navy Strength), cucumber vodka, and Damn Fine chocolate, coffee and mocha liqueurs
Tours: Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons
Barrister & Brewer
Mystic Farm & Distillery
1212 North Mineral Springs Road, Durham
Products: Mystic, a spiced bourbon liqueur, and Heart of Mystic bourbon whiskey
Tours: Saturdays at 2 and 4 p.m.
803 D Ramseur St., Durham
Products: Several flavored liqueurs including Krupnikas, a spiced honey liqueur
Tours (includes Pebble Brook Spirits): Thursdays and Fridays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 2 to 5 p.m.
Pebble Brook Spirits
803 D Ramseur St., Durham
Products: Apple pie liqueur
Tours (includes Brothers Visgalys): Thursdays and Fridays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 2 to 5 p.m.
Lassiter Distilling Company
319 N. First Ave., Knightdale
Products: Amber rum, white rum
Tours: Thursdays at 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m.
Oaklee Distilling Company
13 N. Main St., Wendell
Products: Boots Vodka Troop Strength
Tours: Fridays, 5 to 7:30 p.m.
4834 N.C. 50 South, Benson
Products: Legacy moonshine whiskey, apple-flavored moonshine, Carolina Coast rum and spiced rum
Tours: Thursdays through Saturdays at noon, 2 and 4 p.m.
Fair Game Beverage
220 Lorax Lane, Pittsboro
Products: No’Lasses, a rum made from sorghum; apple brandy; amber rum and pepper-flavored vodka
Tours: By appointment
Gold Leaf Distilling Company
209 1/2 Technology Park Lane, Fuquay-Varina
Products: Spell Maker Vodka
Tours: Founder Mark Doble expects to begin tasting tours mid-August.