Opinion: Daily Journal

Are North Carolina distillers simply ahead of the curve?

A continuous column still at Top of the Hill Distillery in Chapel Hill. (Photo courtesy of Top of the Hill Distillery)
A continuous column still at Top of the Hill Distillery in Chapel Hill. (Photo courtesy of Top of the Hill Distillery)

North Carolina craft spirits are gaining a loyal following among North Carolinians who understand the distilling process and appreciate quality spirits.

And our distillers are trying to make inroads throughout the U.S., and internationally, with varying degrees of success.

Southern Artisan Spirits in Kings Mountain, for instance, has done well on the international market and exports its gin to several European countries.

But, as Peter Thornton points out, it’s’ a crowded marketplace, and the brown, aged liquors are currently riding high on the export wave.

Thornton is assistant director of International Marketing at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

He’s keenly aware of the challenges of selling state spirits globally, and even at home, where arcane rules and regulations inhibit growth and experimentation. No industry that’s expanding so rapidly is held back so much, he says.

“We have these great products, and we should be able to export them.”

He remains confident that big break will come. In time.

But even now, North Carolina connoisseurs of great craft spirits, those who really get great craft spirits, are invariably leaning toward liquor made in North Carolina, as opposed to Russian vodkas or English gins or moonshines made anywhere other than the Tar Heel State.

Whiskey is a different matter, mostly because of a history deeply embedded in American history and the 75-year or so head start Kentucky got on North Carolina in regard to producing aged spirits.

But, again, our time will come. Barrel aged whiskeys are just starting to trickle out of North Carolina distilleries.

The spirits movement in North Carolina is certainly a type of renaissance, despite the regulatory and legal handcuffs.

People are noticing.

North Carolina spirits are collecting awards in international and U.S. competitions, including a slew just recently from the American Distilling Institute, including Lassiter Distilling Co. in Knightdale, which just got under way last year.

(See the complete list of winners here).

Gentry Lassiter, who runs the distillery with his wife, Rebecca, says North Carolina spirits have earned their rightful place among some of the best in the world.

Distillers here aren’t making it on the top of a worn-out flatbed or, as one distiller told me, are no longer forced to stop the process to remove a ‘possom from the mash tank.

“I think this latest round of awards shows that we’re not bootleggers making hooch out of the back of a pickup,” says Gentry Lassiter, “but rather we’re producing some award-winning, refined products that North Carolina has the opportunity to support and even embrace as part of our heritage.”

Much depends on state lawmakers, who would do well to eschew Prohibition-era rules and push legislation such as Senate Bill 155 and its House companion, House Bill 460.

To distillers around the U.S., North Carolina rules governing distilled spirits are, well, unbelievable. They say just that.

North Carolina distillers can sell visitors one bottle of their spirits for their distillery, I told a distiller from Maryland.

You mean, per visit, right? he asked.

Per year, I said.

Then why are they even in the business? asked a distiller from Washington state.

As Thornton said, distilling in North Carolina is growing exponentially, and the potential for tourism is tremendous.

“Are we just ahead of our time?” asks Thornton.

Could be.

Ironically, it’s easier correcting people’s misconceptions about H.B. 2 than it is trying to offer reasons for our draconian laws surrounding alcohol. Lawmakers concerned about how we look to other states regarding how we treat entrepreneurs and the concept of free markets should quickly take note.

John Trump is Carolina Journal managing editor and author of Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State, (Blair Publishers).