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Still and Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State - John Francis Trump

John F. Blair, Publisher

Breweries and wineries have been proliferating in the state in recent years. Another branch of the alcoholic beverage industry is also currently trying to make its presence known. George Olsen has more.

North Carolina has had a complicated history with alcohol. Wilkes Counties was once proclaimed the Moonshine Capital of the World while North Carolina banned alcohol about 10 years prior to the start of prohibition and only removed the ban about five years after the 18th amendment creating prohibition in 1919 was repealed in 1933.    

    “Back in the day before prohibition and the late 1800s, it’s hard to quantify exactly but from some quick Google research I did we had close to 500 distilleries. A lot of these were on farms and were very small operations, but back in the so-called day, North Carolina was a booming distiller and that all ended with prohibition.”

John Francis Trump, who is now writing about the return of craft spirits to the state in his book “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.” It’s been a slow process… the legal kind, at least. Trump notes legal distilleries weren’t allowed until 1979 and the first to open was Piedmont Distillers in Madison in 2005. His book highlights about 3 dozen distillers, all making a variety of high quality spirits from gin to rum to vodka to whiskey but many of them giving an appreciative nod to North Carolina’s notorious bootlegging past.

    “It’s like Jeremy Norris in Benson who also makes moonshine, and Copper Barrel makes moonshine too. Broad Branch makes moonshine, and where these recipes come from, they come from 100-year-old and longer… the Call’s for example, taught some guy named Jack Daniel how to make liquor, a descendant of the Calls who was a Baptist minister who was forced to give up the still after being pressed by his congregation. They’ve got such a history in it. There’s no classification so to speak for moonshine. There’s classification for vodka, whiskey and gin, liquor, but moonshine there’s no government classification, so where you kind of run into a hazy area is what exactly is moonshine. And it’s whatever that recipe, particularly corn. It’s based on a tradition.”

It’s true ‘shine, though perhaps the quality is a bit better than the prohibition era spirits were. Jeremy Norris at Broadslab Distillery in Benson notes his moonshine is made in part from “malted non-GMO corn.” And while it sounds odd to talk “non-GMO” with alcohol, that type of talk isn’t necessarily uncommon for the craft spirits industry in the state. It’s starting to boom… perhaps not as much as state breweries and wineries… but in a way perhaps more familiar to higher-end restaurants that tout their “farm-to-table” creds.

    “Like, for example I go back to Jeremy Norris who grows his own corn. Typically whiskey and vodka… maybe not vodka so much… corn and wheat are the primary ingredients used in NC and they’re available here. For example, TOPO of Top of the Hill makes a line of whiskeys and gins from red organic wheat. They have it available, they have a local farmer. In Lenoir they use local apples, Carriage House uses apples from a farmer down the road Low Orchards. So, yes, that’s totally right. You don’t… the NC Department of Agriculture deserves a lot of credit too because they’ve been pushing this, they’ve been behind this from the beginning, and it’s kind of part and parcel, the agriculture and the liquor.”

The new craft spirits industry also has an attribute that the state’s historical bootleggers would probably never have considered because that attribute wasn’t really a consideration for most business of the time, legal or not. 

    “The thing about Mother Earth, pretty much across the board with distillers, they are very green. They recycle as much as possible, they re-use as much as possible, and the Mother Earth distillery where the brewery is there too has a wonderful tasting room which I think is an ode to the owners’ trip to London and liked it and replicated it there, but they use like blue jeans in the insulation and they grow a lot of their own plants, they have a roof top garden.”

The Mother Earth that Trump just mentioned is Mother Earth Brewery in Kinston, which also has a distiller on site making gin, rum and whiskey. It’s not too far from another eastern North Carolina distiller, Covington Spirits in Snow Hill, which embodies the green spirit of the state’s craft distillers, taking what would otherwise be thrown away and turning it into… as their website proclaims… the Best Yam Vodka on Earth.

    “I’m not a farmer now, when you take the sweet potatoes out of the ground, when you buy them at the store you want pretty sweet potatoes, and sometimes they get torn up, so some of the people at Yamco decided we should do something with these sweet potatoes and someone came up with the idea of making vodka. So that’s what they do. The sweet potatoes are pureed basically like baby food, that’s what it looks like, and they are in turn distilled to a high proof but not high enough to a point where you lose the sweet potato essence. It’s a fantastic vodka.”

It’s also a vodka with a sense of humor, as Jimbo Eason, the Covington distiller, reminds you that their vodka is “gluten free and Putin Free,” satisfying those with both dietary and political restrictions. And a sense of humor might be a requirement to make it in the craft spirits industry in North Carolina. You might wake up tomorrow morning and decide “I want to be a distiller,” but there will be a lot of mornings between that initial desire and getting a product to the public.

    “Typically it takes several years. People have done it quicker, but it takes years… the labeling process, the bottles have to be approved, the labels have to be approved through a couple different agencies, then there are federal rules and state rules. If you’re brewing vodka it has to be distilled to a certain proof. If you call it bourbon it has to have so much corn in it to be labeled bourbon.”

And selling it is another story. It was only in the Pat McCrory administration that a distiller was allowed to sell a bottle of their product to someone directly, after they take a tour… with emphasis on the phrase “a bottle.”

    “Right now as it stands distillers can sell one bottle of liquor per year per customer. That’s not a bottle of each product. That’s one bottle total. Your license is scanned, so it’s tracked. Now you could send people to ABC stores, but will that person go to the ABC store, will they get sidetracked.”

Tastings at the distillery are limited as well… an ounce and a half straight out of the bottle, no mixers, right after a tour. It’s hard to promote your product too… Covington Spirits, for example, can’t offer samples or sell its “Best Yam Vodka on Earth” during the Snow Hill Sweet Potato Festival. There are efforts afoot to ease those restrictions. The General Assembly is currently considering Senate Bill 155 which does various things… loosens the tastings rule and would allow the sale of up to five bottles of product, up from one. There’s other things the distillers would like… to serve mixed drinks, for example, but Trump says they’re trying to move state law as they have to do with their spirits to make a quality product… with baby steps.   

   “It’s our culture, of course. The Baptists versus Bootleggers kind of idea way back, but that’s what it is. It’s amazing that these guys persevere and just bust their butts to make good liquor and sell good liquor and market good liquor with the stringent rules that they’re under by the state.”

John Francis Trump is the author of “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State” which is published by John F. Blair. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.
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