Opinion: CJ Opinion

Distiller talks about nurturing communities through art, sharing as ABC reform bill moves through legislature

Brandon McCraney, in his distillery in Zebulon. (Photo by Lisa Snedeker)
Brandon McCraney, in his distillery in Zebulon. (Photo by Lisa Snedeker)

A form of art, growing and nurturing communities. A block on which to build neighborhoods, relationships. 

Simple phrases, lacking description but begging for illustration, detailed, contextual description.

What’s coming is a common refrain from me, used many times in myriad fashions. Yet it’s always true.

Places such as breweries, distilleries, wineries have taken the point in revitalizing towns and communities throughout North Carolina. In urban towns such as Cary and Winston-Salem to more rural ones such as Sylva and Mount Pleasant.

In places such as Zebulon, a small town in eastern Wake County probably best known for its minor league baseball team, the Carolina Mudcats. To say the town is thriving would be hyperbole, but to say it’s seeing a type of rebirth would not.

At the center of that is Olde Raleigh Distillery in the heart of downtown. Around the corner is Mythic Brewing, which has grown from its original location in Rocky Mount.

On a recent Saturday, each business was filled with people. Yes, in this case, “thriving” would be correct.

Alcohol comprises the core of both businesses, but the people were enjoying themselves not because of the beer, or the whiskey. Rather, they were enjoying each other, reveling in their neighborhood, their community. A form of fellowship, a natural progression of people coming together. 

“We’re all about the fun atmosphere,” said Shawna Brouwers, Mythic manager.

Family-friendly, dog-friendly, local food trucks, artists, and musicians. A reason for people to get out, to meet people in a small town. Gathering to eat, to drink, and to share. 

Brouwers talked about a couple of people sitting down over a beer to celebrate a promotion.

“They went and got tacos, and they came in here, and they both had one beer in the span of like an hour and a half because they were just talking, enjoying the fact that he had just gotten this promotion. It wasn’t about coming in here to get drunk with your boss.”

Bringing people downtown, sharing in the art. Sharing with local charities.

“We are all about the community,” Brouwers said.

Brandon McCraney, the master blender who owns the distillery and is its master blender, told me as much. At least a couple of times. From Raleigh, McCraney left a corporate career to open the distillery in Zebulon. 

It’s not easy opening a distillery in North Carolina. Never is.

There are the haphazard hurdles from the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control system and its 171 boards. Problems with the state’s liquor warehouse. With distribution leading to empty shelves, angry bar owners, and restaurateurs. ABC officials and the warehouse operator blame COVID and disruptions in the global supply chain, although there’s more to it than that. Neighboring states have no such issues. Incompetence plays no small role. Nor does the state’s liquor monopoly, all under the banner of control and restraint. It’s nonsense, of course, yet people such as McCraney, innovators and entrepreneurs, soldier on.

“I’m all in on this,” he told Carolina Journal.

An art form, blending the bourbon — the distillery’s third batch was released Saturday — from barrels of juice resting nine, five, even 17, or 21 years. Poured into bottles, which line a wall at the distillery, painstakingly designed from a variety of options, photos of which line yet another wall. McCraney is aging honey, culled from a local beekeeper. It’s uncharacteristically smooth, luscious. He’s trying out different sorts of heirloom corn, which he’ll transform into his own bourbon.

In due time.

“There’s an art to this,” McCraney says. “We’re doing fun, cool stuff, and hopefully it resonates with other people.”

People don’t need to drive to Raleigh, Charlotte, or Asheville to have a good time, he says.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, and Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, would enthusiastically agree. Moffitt, who took the baton from Rep. Chuck McGrady in leading reform of the state’s antiquated liquor-control system, is, along with Johnson, pushing through the legislature an amended and reworked House Bill 890

On Wednesday, Sept. 1, the omnibus bill passed the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, onto Rules and at the door of the Senate floor. The expansive bill, which passed the N.C. House on second reading months ago, would, among other things, allow people to order online and pick products up from state ABC stores, expand the size of to-go growlers, loosen rules for tours in N.C. distilleries, and allow ABC stores to sell refrigerated products, such as canned cocktails and liquor-infused ice cream.

“The House takes alcohol beverage control seriously,” Moffitt said in the Commerce Committee, “and we appreciate that we’re one of 17 remaining control states … [T]his bill is responsible when it comes to maintaining that, but it’s always responsive [to] the changing dynamics and the disruptions we’re currently seeing in the field of alcohol in our state.”

McCraney, on that Saturday, like a proud father, walked through his distillery, pointing to barrels of whiskey aged in North Carolina, Indiana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Tennessee.

Like a proud father.

“This is my baby,” he said.

N.C. lawmakers would do well to take care of it, as well as others like it.