When it comes to spirits, North Carolina punches above its weight. In 2020, the state was home to 77 craft distilleries, up 15% from the previous year. That makes North Carolina second to just Texas, a state more than five times its size, in the South for its number of distilleries.
Collectively, the Carolinas were previously known for making moonshine, originally an illicit distilled spirit made to evade taxation (or Prohibition). More recently, legal distilleries have leaned into so-called “moonshine” style, which means often minimally aged corn whiskey or rum-like “sugar ’shine.”
“There are so many channels on TV that have highlighted moonshining and its history,” says Yashira Mejia, a Charlotte-based freelance mixologist and service industry consultant. She points to Call Family Distillers in Wilkes County as a distillery with a legit history of liquor production and sales under the cover of moonlit nights.
“This is a family, a generation of moonshiners,” says Mejia. “In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, this area was the epicenter of moonshining. You can go on [Call Family’s] site and see the fast cars they used to transport the moonshine and escape federal agents.”
Such stories may help build excitement, but North Carolina’s distilleries also turn out plenty of rum, gin, even a line of amaros that has a keen following of bartenders.
So, what makes a distillery uniquely North Carolinian?
“The Southern hospitality, that charm,” says Mejia. “You don’t get it in every distillery, but when you do, you know where it’s at.”
Here are nine North Carolina distilleries to seek out.
Blue Ridge Distilling Company: Just one product is made at this Bostic facility: Defiant, an American single malt. “Some places don’t like to share their recipe, but they tell you straight up this is made with yeast and water from the Blue Ridge Mountains,” says Mejia. The whiskey is steeped with oak staves/spirals, a process “far more efficient than barrels,” the producer claims.
Call Family Distillers: High-proof moonshines in mason jars are the signature offering here. Call Family crafts theirs from a base of malted barley, local corn, wheat and cane sugar. Flavored versions include Apple Pie and Strawberry. The lineup is named “The Uncatchable,” a reference to the family’s collection of vintage high-speed getaway cars, once used to outrun the feds.
Durham Distillery: Best known for Conniption Gin, products from this Research Triangle distillery are available across the U.S. Mejia lauds its garden-to-glass Cucumber Vodka and Damn Fine Liqueurs lineup, saying the latter is “very delicious” and “dangerous.”
Eda Rhyne Distilling Company: This Asheville producer crafts small-batch amaro and digestif liqueurs that include the walnut-based Rustic Nocino and bitter Appalachian Fernet. It has also racked up a following among bartenders. The spirits are flavored with organic botanicals, some grown on Owner and Distiller Rett Murphy’s Aardvark Farm, while others are foraged from the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
Great Wagon Road Distilling: Founded by an Irish native whose grandfather made whiskey, this Charlotte distillery makes poteen (poitin), an unaged spirit with Irish roots that some liken to moonshine. It also makes Rúa, an American single-malt whiskey that takes its name from the Gaelic word for “red head,” a reference to its ruddy amber hue.
Muddy River Distillery: The Catawba River, located just outside downtown Charlotte, gives this rum-centric distillery a scenic backdrop. “One of my favorites is their Queen Charlotte’s Reserve Single Barrel 4 Year Carolina Rum,” says Mejia.
Southern Grace Distilleries: Housed in a former prison, this Mount Pleasant distillery makes Bourbon and other whiskey under its Conviction label. Southern Grace takes advantage of the facility’s checkered history with “After Dark Tours” of the grounds, conducted by flashlight.
The Hackney Distillery: The sole bottling here is 1,000 Piers, a “Coastal Carolina gin.” It’s made in the London Dry style from 22 botanicals including orange, grapefruit, lemongrass and star anise. “It’s citrus-forward and very fragrant,” says Mejia. “The botanicals are used in a thoughtful way.” The distillery is adjacent to The Hackney, a British/American restaurant helmed by chef Jamie Davis. “When you’re sitting down, you see the copper still right behind the bar,” says Mejia.