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SMALL

BIG

BY WENDELL BROCK

FROM THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS OF TENNESSEE TO THE FLAT, FERTILE FARMLANDS OF RURAL SOUTHWEST GEORGIA, SOUTHERN CRAFT DISTILLERS ARE INTOXICATING TOURISTS WITH TALES OF HISTORY AND HOOCH. OPEN FOR TOURS AND READY FOR VISITORS, THEY ARE PASSING THE JAR TO A GENERATION OF SIPPERS AS THIRSTY FOR SMALL-BATCH BOURBON, RUM, AND MOONSHINE AS OTHERS ARE FOR REGIONAL WINES AND LOCAL BREWS.

71 PAGE

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rik Vonk fell in love with rum as a boy visiting his grandfather in Rotterdam. Imagine a place of burnished wood paneling, old books, whiskey bottles, and the aroma of rum-soaked Christmas pudding. That buttery-caramel scent is exactly what you smell when you walk into Richland Distilling Company, where Vonk and his wife, Karin, have been cooking up their award-winning Richland Rum since 2011. Inside one of their two red-brick Victorian buildings on Richland’s Broad Street, visitors may see distillery manager Roger Zimmerman hovering around enormous stainless steel vats filled with fermenting sugarcane syrup. Nearby are the oniondome-shaped copper stills where the 72

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Should you decide to enter the boozy world of the Southern distillery movement, these are some of the compelling tales you’ll hear. You’ll also discover that you’re not alone in your pursuit of craft whiskey. Distillers say folks are coming from all over to sip and sample—a trend that’s a powerful stimulant to tourism. “We have people who have driven in from other states just to come to our distillery,” says Troy Ball, founder of Asheville Distilling Co. and the face behind Troy & Sons heirloom moonshine. The story’s the same in tiny Richland, Georgia, where Erik and Karin Vonk welcome hundreds of visitors a month to Richland Rum’s headquarters. At Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, the Nelson brothers’ Belle Meade Bourbon has made them rock stars, wowing tourists with tales of their great-great-great grandmother, a “badass” turn-of-the-century distiller. But the most popular distillery of all is Ole Smoky in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which welcomed more than a million shine-seeking pilgrims last year. “It’s staggering how many people come through here,” says founder Joe Baker. Some visitors are drawn by the lore and legends surrounding the spirits; others are interested in the flavors unique to these small Southern batches. For the Baker family, starting Ole Smoky was a way to honor their East Tennessee heritage while capitalizing on the public’s fascination with the Appalachian art of moonshine-making—a tradition rife with outlaws and Mason jars of firewater. Familial pride and history also inspired the Nelson brothers to launch Belle Meade Bourbon and build Green Brier Distillery. For Vonk and Ball, it’s about terroir—the taste and flavor produced by Southern soil to make their spirits distinctive. It’s about the pride that comes from using homegrown sugar cane and corn to make superior rums and whiskeys.

richland distilling co. WHEN A DUTCH TRANSPLANT MOVES TO SLEEPY RICHLAND, GEORGIA, HE GIVES THE TOWN A NAMESAKE RUM AND WAKES UP ITS TOURISM INDUSTRY.

rum is cooked, then poured into charred virgin oak barrels and aged for two years. Across a courtyard in a separate building, the Vonks pour tastings of their rum in an elegantly appointed room that evokes the Old World ambience of the Netherlands.

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GA

RICHLAND

These scenes wouldn’t be happening if the town’s leaders hadn’t invited the Vonks to put their distillery in the historic downtown buildings that had been boarded up for decades. The couple perfected their recipe eight miles away at their

N E L S O N ' S G R E E N B R I E R D I S T I L L E R Y, H A R O L D D A N I E L S

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hen a Texas woman moves to North Carolina, her neighbors come bearing gifts of moonshine. Inspired, she uses heirloom corn to concoct a smooth-sipping platinum whiskey that is now a star attraction at her Asheville distillery. A Dutch entrepreneur buys a south Georgia farm for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane to make rum. When a nearby town hears about his exceptional barrel-aged spirit, they invite him to set up shop in their sleepy hamlet, and the distillery becomes a tourist magnet that helps revitalize the town. When Tennessee changes its laws to allow more distilleries in the state, a family with a long history of making corn liquor jumps at the chance to start Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, the state’s first legal shine still. Meanwhile, almost by accident, two young Nashville brothers discover that their great-great-great-grandparents were Tennessee whiskey pioneers, so they set out to resurrect their distillery exactly 100 years after it was shuttered by Prohibition.


P H O TO C R E D I T T K

Erik Vonk, Richland Distilling Company

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“I set out to make a really fine example of the moonshine that the old men in the mountains would make and keep for themselves to drink."

Troy Ball, Asheville Distilling Company

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1,700-acre Vennebroeck Estate, where they grow the sugar cane for the rum; they had planned to name their product Vennebroeck Velvet. But when Richland Mayor Adolph McLendon asked them to help revitalize the dilapidated town center, Erik said he thought it was the right thing to do. Today it is clear that economic transformation is afoot. “It’s really beginning to ramp up very rapidly,” Erik says. State law forbids distillers from selling bottles on the property, but a privately owned liquor store opened across the street from the distillery last year, so visitors can now stroll over to stock up on rum. There are hopes that shops and cafes will follow. “I think big change is coming,” says Rossi Ross, chair of Richland’s Downtown Development Authority. “I think right now we are just getting started. Within the next five to ten years, you are going to see Richland change completely.” richlandrum.com •

SPOTLIGHT

Southern Artisan Spirits KINGS MOUNTAIN, NC

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Southern Artisan Spirits creates its beverages by combining traditional distilling methods with unusual ingredients. Its premier product, the awardwinning Cardinal Gin, contains juniper, clove, coriander, spearmint, and frankincense. Founded in 2008, the family-ownedand-operated small-batch distillery also produces a barrel-rested gin and two white whiskeys. southernartisanspirits.com —ian palmer

Asheville Distilling Co. A DETERMINED MOTHER MOVES TO ASHEVILLE FOR HER KIDS AND BIRTHS A NEW CAREER AS THE DISTILLER OF TROY & SONS PLATINUM WHISKEY.

NC

ASHEVILLE

R AC H A E L M C I N TO S H , H A R O L D DA N I E LS

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f you happen to bump into an attractive blonde with a friendly demeanor while touring this distillery, chances are she’s “Moonshine Mama” Troy Ball. A former competitive horse racer who describes herself as “entrepreneurial by nature,” Ball moved from Austin, Texas, with her family a decade ago because she thought the cool mountain air would be healthier for her two special-needs sons. When neighbors stopped by to welcome them with a jar of white lightnin’, Ball was intrigued. She soon formulated her own corn liquor in a five-gallon pressure cooker. “My husband truly thought I was crazy,” Ball laughs. Yet she convinced him they could make a business out of it, and they opened their operation in 2011. “Today he’s the master distiller,” she says. An engineer with an MBA and a background in green development, Charlie Ball is the mastermind of the gleaming 5,000-liter, German-made copper still that you see on the distillery tour. It stays busy almost ’round the clock, producing 100,000 cases a year. Troy says she’s not surprised by their success: “When I got into this, I wanted to make the finest example of a great American white whiskey that I could.” The process begins in the fields. The Balls pride themselves on the sweet white heirloom corn they procure from local farmer John McEntire. An 1840s variety called Crooked Creek, it’s the main ingredient in Troy & Sons Platinum Whiskey and Troy & Sons Oak Reserve, which is mellowed in bourbon barrels. In a city famous for the Biltmore Estate, the boyhood home of Look Homeward, Angel author Thomas Wolfe, and a pioneering craft-beer scene, Asheville Distilling Co. has already found a niche as a tourist destination. (Five minutes from downtown off Interstate 40, it sits next to Highland Brewing Co., a nationally regarded craft brewer.) Though North Carolina prohibits distilleries from selling whiskey on the premises, the Balls hope the law will soon change. In the meantime, thirsty guests seek out local restaurants with Troy & Sons cocktails on the menu. “Our visitors want to know which restaurants in town sell our products. ‘Where can we get a cocktail?’” Troy says. (One answer: Try the house Old Fashioned—Troy & Sons Reserve, honey, bitters, and lemon—at Chestnut.) ashevilledistilling.com •

RECIPE

peach cardinal RECIPE COURTESY OF PISCES SUSHI BAR, CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA • 1/2 oz. absinthe • Muddled lemon wedge • 1 1/2 oz. Cardinal Barrel Rested Gin • 3/4 oz. Teavana’s Peach Tranquility tea simple syrup* • 1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino liqueur • Fresh peach wedge *Brew tea very strong and turn into a simple syrup with half the normal amount of sugar.

Shake with ice and double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with fresh peach wedge.

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Joe Baker, Ole Smoky Distillery

SPOTLIGHT

Carolina Distillery LENOIR, NC

Keith Nordan and Chris Hollifield, producers of the award-winning Carriage House Apple Brandy, opened Carolina Distillery in 2008. Their brandy gets its name from the distillery’s original building, an old carriage house in downtown Lenoir. The recipes for the distillery’s flavored brandies pay homage to previous generations of moonshiners who would use fruit as primary ingredients in their distillations when they ran out of corn. The apple brandy is made using a Hollifield family recipe that incorporates locally grown apples. Carolina Distillery also produces strawberry, white, and apple-pie brandies, all of them distilled in copper pots and single barrel proofed. carolinadistillery.com —I.P.

Ole Smoky Distillery AN EAST TENNESSEE FAMILY BRINGS ITS GENERATIONS-OLD MOONSHINE-MAKING TRADITION DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAINS TO GATLINBURG’S MAIN STRIP.

TN

GATLINBURG

Blue Ridge Runner RECIPE COURTESY OF THE WINE CELLAR & BISTRO, LENOIR, NORTH CAROLINA • 1 1/2 oz. Carriage House Apple Brandy • 3 1/2 oz. ginger ale • Lime slice Fill a highball glass with ice. Add brandy and ginger ale. Garnish with lime slice.

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ohnny Baker’s hillbilly accent is as authentic as the moonshine his family has been making for generations, and he uses it to marked effect as he entertains tourists at their Gatlinburg distillery. “We are making coooorn liquor—moonshine,” Baker says, stretching out the vowel to emphasize the appeal of a distillate with a shady, complicated past. Baker says families who settled the region, including his own, practiced “the art of making true corn liquor” out of economic necessity. “My mother was the baby of nine kids,” he says. “So my grandfather had a choice to make—whether he sold a bushel of corn for fifty or seventy-five cents or turned it into liquid corn and made twenty dollars.” When Tennessee changed its laws in 2009 to expand liquor production from three to forty-one counties, the Baker family—led by Johnny’s attorney nephew, Joe Baker—saw the potential for selling shine and never looked back. “We present an authentic product in a fun setting that embraces the history and the culture of the area,” Joe says. “I think people really bought into that.” It probably didn’t hurt that the Discovery Channel launched its popular Moonshiners

H A R O L D DA N I E LS , O L E S M O K Y M O O N S H I N E , NELSON'S GREEN BRIER DISTILLERY

RECIPE


series in 2011, a year after the Bakers opened the distillery. After a rollout that included just three products (Original, White Lightnin’, and Moonshine Cherries), “it just really started taking off, and we kind of hung on from there,” Johnny says. (Ole Smoky recently opened a second location, the Ole Smoky Barn, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.) Operating out of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, a weathered wooden structure meant to evoke backwoods stills and mountain gristmills, the Gatlinburg distillery now offers fifteen varieties of moonshine, including Apple Pie, Sweet Tea, and Peach flavors. Located across the parkway from Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, the Holler literally stands toe-to-toe with some of Gatlinburg’s most popular tourism destinations. Guests can taste and purchase Ole Smoky products

"WE ARE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE, AND WE ARE PROUD OF WHO WE ARE. IT’S MOST GRATIFYING THAT WE ARE ABLE TO SHARE A MOUNTAIN PRODUCT WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD.” —JOE BAKER, FOUNDER, OLE SMOKY DISTILLERY, GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE

and listen to live music in the Holler. Johnny is part of the entertainment, too. The reason moonshine is so cool, he says, is because it has such a checkered past. “A lot of people just like the story and want to be like that outlaw.” olesmoky.com •

Charlie and Andy Nelson, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery TWO BROTHERS RESURRECT THEIR FAMILY’S NASHVILLE DISTILLERY TO CREATE BELLE MEADE BOURBON—AND DISCOVER THEIR CALLING IN THE PROCESS.

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n a hot Nashville morning, Charlie and Andy Nelson walk through a distillery that is at once brand new and steeped in history. The gleaming copper still, tasting room, and

TN

NASHVILLE

retail shop are the recent culmination of an eight-year effort during which the brothers launched Belle Meade Bourbon and built the distillery for crafting Tennessee whiskey. The old liquor bottles, yellowing newspaper

ads, and sepia-toned family photographs in the Hallway of History speak of an earlier age, and serve as a time capsule from their great-great-great grandfather’s original distillery. (CONTINUED ON PAGE 90)

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(CONTINUED FROM PAGE 77)

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SPOTLIGHT

Cathead Distillery MADISON, MS

Founded in 2010, Cathead was the first legal distillery in Mississippi (the last state to repeal Prohibition). Owners Austin Evans and Richard Patrick distill Cathead Vodka six times and mix sweet grain corn into each batch. In addition to the original vodka, Cathead produces a white barley whiskey, a chicory liqueur, and several flavored vodkas, including pecan and pumpkin spice. Their passion for spirits is blended with a love for Mississippi roots music. Through partnerships with local foundations, Cathead supports live performances and local musicians. catheadvodka.com —I.P.

RECIPE

The King & Cat RECIPE COURTESY OF H&F BOTTLE SHOP, ATLANTA, GEORGIA • 2 oz. Cathead Vodka • 1 oz. King’s Ginger Liqueur • 1/2 oz. Luxardo Bitter • 1/2 oz. lemon juice • 1/2 oz. simple syrup • Lemon swath Shake and strain over ice in a Collins glass. Garnish with a lemon swath.

H A R O L D DA N I E LS

From the mid-1900s until Prohibition shut it down in 1914, Charles Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery ruled the Southern whiskey frontier. “He produced the original Tennessee whiskey before Jack Daniel’s,” Charlie says of his namesake. According to the brothers’ research, by about 1885, Charles was selling about 387,000 gallons a year worldwide. By comparison, they say Jack Daniel’s capacity was only about 23,000 gallons. But it wasn’t until 2006 that Charlie and Andy even knew about their birthright. Visiting the countryside outside Nashville with their parents, they noticed a historical marker for Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery; curious, they decided to stop by the local historical society. “We saw two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. Every hair on my body stood up, and Andy and I looked at each other,” Charlie recalls. “We were just like: ‘Man, this is what we are here to do.’ And it was kind of like a moment of clarity and love at first sight and being struck by lighting.” After much fund-raising and research, the brothers launched their first product, Belle Meade Bourbon, in 2012. Since then, the intense, 90.4-proof liquor—distilled in Indiana and bottled in Nashville—


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has been embraced by connoisseurs around the South. And the progeny of the first Charles Nelson have become whiskey rock stars, traveling the region to promote the brand. (In a smart business move, the Nelsons will sell Belle Meade at the distillery while they wait for their Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey to age two years.) Nearly every restaurant or bar you visit in Nashville features Belle Meade bourbon and cocktails. “They have gained a lot of popularity in a short time,” says Kenny Lyons, general manager of the Nashville outpost of Husk, chef Sean Brock’s mecca of Southern fine dining. “They have done a really admirable job of trying to restore their family’s history.” Lyons, who built the restaurant’s drink program, says the new distillery “will certainly add to the experience” of Music City, where food and liquor are beginning to shine like the stars of the Grand Ole Opry. Though their profiles are rising, the brothers are rarely far from the distillery. As they wrap up a recent tour of the grounds, they come to the enormous copper still that’s the heart of the operation. Charlie says they named her Miss Louisa after his great-great-great grandmother Louisa. She certainly deserves the honor: After Charles Nelson’s death in 1891, his widow ran the distillery for eighteen years. One of the few women ever to hold such a job, a kind of Southern widow Clicquot, she thrived in the male-dominated profession. “She was a badass,” Andy says. Miss Louisa just might say the same thing about her descendants and what they’ve done to honor their heritage. greenbrierdistillery.com •

Digital Bonus Eat and drink your way through Nashville with our writer, Wendell Brock. Stay at the famed Hermitage Hotel, sip a Belle Meade cocktail at Husk, and more. ATLANTAMAGAZINE.COM/ SOUTHBOUND

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CRAFT COCKTAILS

H A R O L D DA N I E LS

Belly Up to the Bar As Southern distillers continue to hone their craft, they’re helped by a new crop of bars shaking up drinks that are both creative and classic. The craft cocktail boom came South five or six years ago, led by establishments like The Patterson House in Nashville and Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House. A Holeman alum, mixologist Miles Macquarrie (above), now presides over the bar at Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia, where each drink is served in vintage glassware and contains at least one ingredient prepared on-site. “The past few years have been great for cocktails in the South,” he says. “There are constantly new bars popping up and doing things the right way.” He cites New Orleans’ Cure and The Gin Joint in Charleston as standouts. “What has been really cool, beyond the attention paid to drink history and technique, is a big focus on service and hospitality.”

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Profile for Richland Single Estate Rum

Southbound Magazine - Destination Distilleries, Southern Spirits worth the Trip  

SMALL BATCHES, BIG CROWDS This is about terroir - the taste and flavor produced by Southern soil to make spirits distinctive. Inside the two...

Southbound Magazine - Destination Distilleries, Southern Spirits worth the Trip  

SMALL BATCHES, BIG CROWDS This is about terroir - the taste and flavor produced by Southern soil to make spirits distinctive. Inside the two...

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