women’s issue The Spirited Entrepreneur
Co-owner and President/CEO, Durham Distillery
The Miami native came to Durham by way of Philadelphia – it was there she met her husband, Lee, online in 1999, “before Match.com existed.” Lee’s job as a chemist at GlaxoSmithKline brought them to Durham 11 years ago. They live in the Grandale neighborhood in south Durham and their sons Ethan, 9, and Brennan, 6, attend Pearsontown Elementary.
pen nearly two years, and Durham Distillery is already No. 2 craft gin distillery in the U.S., according to USA TODAY, and has won the North Carolina Gin Distillery of the Year award at the New York International Spirits Competition twice. But, as with any small, burgeoning business, it’s not all glitz and glamour: “I think there are so many people who think owning a distillery is going to be really sexy and gorgeous,” Melissa says, “and I’m like, there are days where I’m scrubbing the floors, bottling, doing federal taxes, etc.” Even with the success, Melissa points out that the company is still very much an entrepreneurial endeavor for her and husband Lee, who is also co-owner and distiller. “We’re in a growth stage right now,” Melissa says. “We’ve really come on the scene very powerfully, and people know about us for our high-quality [spirits], which was always the goal.” Adding to their progress, Melissa shares that a couple new products that are in the works: a cold-distilled cucumber vodka made on their Rotovap vacuum still, set to be released in May – “As far as we can tell, we think this will be the only cold-distilled cucumber vodka on the market in the world,” Melissa says – and a new gin under the Conniption flagship that will be barrel-rested in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, scheduled for a fourth quarter release. Further plans include increasing the brand’s presence throughout N.C. – specifically Asheville and Charlotte – as well as up and down the East Coast. Melissa also represents N.C. distillers as the vice president of the Distillers Association of North Carolina, and is continuously trying to lobby for fewer restrictions to the industry in N.C. “Most distilleries in other states have flexibility to not do straight pours, to have cocktails available, and they have flexibility in selling,” Melissa says. “That’s why other states’ distilleries are taking off much faster. We really have to figure out how to get everybody in agreement. The intentions of the distillers are honest and authentic. We don’t want to be ABC stores, but don’t prevent us from succeeding.” Those motivations are what drive her to continue producing high-quality spirits in Durham. “You don’t know what challenges are on the horizon, but there is an inner passion that just keeps you moving forward, because at the end of the day, you can’t let what feel like challenges really become them. You just figure out how to turn them into opportunities and focus on creating delicious products that the community enjoys.” – Amanda MacLaren 56