6 Dixie Distillers Crafting High-End Hooch
The southeastern U.S. is experiencing a boom in new distilleries. While the Kentucky-Tennessee belt has always had its share of whiskey producers, today, distillers around the region have begun cranking out quality in everything from rum to vodka to watermelon brandy.
There’s a science-minded master distiller who’s changing the way Bourbon is made at a 200-year-old company one experiment at a time, and the Moonshine Mama who uses heirloom corn to make high-end hooch. These are people who embody both the spirits and the soul of the South.
Harlen Wheatley | Master Distiller | Buffalo Trace Distillery
“I haven’t strayed far from the nest,” says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller for 200-year-old Bourbon maker Buffalo Trace. Wheatley was born in Kentucky, earning bachelor degrees in Chemistry from Northern Kentucky University and Chemical Engineering from the University of Kentucky. He joined Buffalo Trace in 1994 and became master distiller in 2005.
Wheatley helped transform the mainstream Buffalo Trace into an experimental wonderland, turning out limited-edition bottlings that collectors clamor to try.
Nearly 25 years ago, Wheatley started the Holy Grail project—literally, a search to create “the world’s perfect Bourbon.” He experimented with every aspect possible, from the grains that make up the whiskey to the wood used for the barrels.
But perhaps his crowning glory opened in 2014: Warehouse X. It’s a sprawling warehouse/laboratory that controls the levels of sunlight, air flow, temperature and humidity—the key variables that affect how Bourbon ages.
It cost more than $1 million to build, and about 20 years of experiments are lined up for Warehouse X, Wheatley estimates.
“We have crazy ideas, and aren’t afraid to try them,” Wheatley says. “The possibilities for Bourbon here are endless.”
Perhaps the craziest idea of all? Wheatley recently introduced an eponymous small-batch wheat vodka that’s remarkably soft, with subtle undertones of vanilla. No word yet on whether more vodka experiments are in the works, but it wouldn’t be surprising.
Darek Bell | Owner and Distiller | Corsair Distillery
Nashville and Bowling Green, Kentucky
Pictured with Andrea Clodfelter, head distiller for Corsair’s Nashville operations, Nashville native and self-described whiskey geek Darek Bell can’t seem to stop experimenting.
Quinoa whiskey? Sure. Red absinthe made with hibiscus? Why not?
Corsair’s Triple Smoke Whiskey has been a particular crowd-pleaser. It’s a single malt smoked in three separate batches (American cherrywood, German beechwood and Scottish peat) before being blended into an invigoratingly smoky bottling that rivals peated Scotches.
If you want a peek at what’s to come in the whiskey world, keep an eye on Bell. His ever-expanding range of seasonal and experimental offerings possess edgy names like Buck Yeah, a buckwheat whiskey, or Insane in the Grain, a 12-grain Bourbon.
After a stint as a television editor at MTV in New York City, Bell returned to Tennessee. He worked in construction while distilling in his garage with co-founder and childhood friend Andrew Webber.
Bell only realized that hooch might be more than a hobby after a chat with an “underground urban moonshiner” from Brooklyn.
“I said, ‘I’m from Tennessee, I should be doing that.’ ”
Bell and Webber launched Corsair in 2008.
Their focus has always been about trying something new, what Bell dubs “alternative whiskeys.”
In 2013, he published a book, Alt Whiskeys: Alternative Whiskeys and Techniques for the Adventurous Distiller, a cookbook of sorts for aspiring whiskey makers. Bell followed with Fire Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys, a how-to book focused on smoked spirits.
“We love trying things that are different,” Bell says. “Our ethos is, ‘If it’s been done before, who cares, why do it?’ ”
In late 2014, Corsair launched its own facility to malt and smoke grain, and the experimentation began from the outset. The wood-smoking options were in part inspired by barbecue champs: hickory, black walnut, sugar maple, cherry and persimmon, to start.
Alternative woods? We would expect nothing less from the king of alt whiskey.
Rick Wasmund | Founder and Owner | Copper Fox Distillery
“Loch Indaal, 5,614 km,” reads a sign posted above the malting floor at Copper Fox. The sign points the way to a sea loch on Islay, the Scottish island known for producing spectacularly smoky Scotch whiskies.
The sign appears cryptic until Rick Wasmund, the company’s founder and owner, explains the chance encounter with a dram of Scotch that started him on his journey. It’s then that you pick up on the puns and dry humor that are part of Wasmund’s patter. The Loch Indaal sign is simultaneously funny and wistful.
In 1999, a Johnnie Walker tasting left Wasmund wondering about how to make smoky whiskey in the United States, something no one was doing at the time. He took an internship at Islay Scotch distillery Bowmore, and consulted for long hours with agricultural experts from Virginia Tech on the subject.
By 2005, Wasmund was ready to start making whiskey.
A visit to the distillery reveals the bootstrap nature of the operation. Locally grown grain germinates on the two malting floors, dubbed North and South—the first in-distillery malting floors in the U.S. since Prohibition—housed in the same room.
“At night, they re-enact Civil War battles,” Wasmund jokes. “It’s a mess in morning.”
Instead of peat, whiskies are smoked using local applewood and cherrywood. Some barrels sit on a shelf above the stills, where steam and heat cuts the aging time to a single year, compared to the three to eight years that most American whiskies rest in wood.
As a result, spicy, slightly fruity Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (he uses the Scottish spelling in homage) doesn’t taste quite like a traditional Bourbon, or a Scotch whisky.
“There’s not anything you can compare it to,” Wasmund says, of both the spirit and the way it was made. “There wasn’t anyone to copy, so we had to develop it on our own.”
When it comes to his namesake whiskey, Wasmund isn’t kidding around.
Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall | Co-owners | High Wire Distilling Co.
Charleston, South Carolina
The newest product from this distillation duo is one that you can’t find anywhere else—a small-batch watermelon brandy, made from a 19th-century recipe pieced together from faded newspaper clippings. The key ingredient is the rare heirloom Bradford watermelon. No grapes in this brandy, just watermelon.
This sort of locavore experiment is typical of High Wire, a microdistillery focused on spirits with a distinct sense of Southern terroir. Another example: A rhum agricole-style rum made from locally grown sugarcane, dubbed Lowcountry Agricole. Or New Southern Rivival Bourbon Whiskey, made with four grains, including Carolina Gold rice.
“I didn’t want to make another dry gin or Bourbon from bulk grain that we bought from Archer Daniels Midland,” says Head Distiller Scott Blackwell, who runs the distillery with his wife and co-owner, Ann Marshall. “That becomes very vanilla, ingredient-wise, for us, and makes our product more homogenized all the way through.”
Before taking on the distiller role, Blackwell founded a natural and organic bakery, Immaculate Baking Company, which he later sold to General Mills. His baker’s background clearly colors his perception of spirits. He likens one whiskey’s flavor to buttermilk biscuits, another to fig-laden molasses cake.
When Blackwell talks, it’s easy to become hungry and thirsty at the same time.
When it comes to spirits, he’s all about the grain. He goes to great lengths to procure interesting raw materials from local farmers like that Carolina Gold rice, red wheat and Jimmy Red corn. (“It’s good for grits,” he says.)
While most distillers lean heavily on flavors like caramel, vanilla and spice that are imparted by barrels, it seems fitting that High Wire wants to create “grain-forward spirits.”
Says Marshall, “The bedrock of our philosophy is how to bring back the flavors in these nearly lost grains in the land that they are growing on, and bring them to the forefront.”
Phil Prichard | President and Master Distiller | Prichards’ Distillery
Nashville and Kelso, Tennessee
Think back to 1996: There were no “craft distilleries” yet. So imagine the leap of faith it must have taken to start the first distillery in Tennessee in almost 50 years. Adding to that, Phil Prichard decided to make rum, deep in the heart of whiskey country.
“The history of rum in America had almost been lost,” Prichard says. “I began to look into how rum was made 250 years ago.”
He discovered that Colonial Era rum was made differently from the blackstrap molasses-style rums he saw at the local liquor store. Instead, they “were made from a sweet table-grade molasses, like you might put on your pancakes and corn bread. That’s what I started to hone in on.”
While today’s craft distillers benefit from learning from veteran liquor producers, Prichard admits that he backed into the market differently than most. It’s common now for spirits makers to sell unaged products while they wait years for the good stuff to mature.
“It never dawned on me to make white rum and sell it,” Prichard says. “I set out to make a good rum, so you have to age it. It took me three to four years to see if it was any good.”
White rum followed later, as did a line of whiskeys. The latest project: cream liqueurs in decadent flavors like Fudge Brownie and New Orleans Style Praline Cream.
“Maybe I was a pioneer who helped blaze a trail for some of the young distillers, and I’m proud of that,” he says. “I helped bring a little bit of interest to the rum category.”
So what was it like to be a rum pioneer in the middle of whiskey country?
“It’s not good English, but it’s one of the funnest things I ever got involved with,” Prichard says.
Troy Ball | Founder and Owner | Asheville Distilling Co.
Asheville, North Carolina
Troy Ball, who calls herself a Dixie chick, has been making white whiskey since 2010. Although moonshine usually refers to the illicit stuff, her hooch, including longer-aged Blonde Whiskey and vanilla-tinged Troy & Sons Oak Reserve bottlings, is entirely legal.
The Troy & Sons selections are named for Ball and her three grown sons, who played a key role in her journey to spirits producer. When the family relocated from Texas to North Carolina, neighbors brought housewarming gifts of homemade moonshine.
“It was terrible,” she says.
Finally, a local tipped her off. “The good stuff is kept at home,” she was told.
Ball set out to make her own version of “the good stuff.” Her first still was a modified pressure cooker.
Moonshine traditionally refers to corn whiskey, and Ball learned that white corn was the key ingredient for making good ’shine. But it was harder to find than she expected.
Eventually, she aligned with seventh-generation farmer John McEntire, who grew an heirloom variety called Crooked Creek Corn, noted for its particularly high fat content.
A second discovery followed: Working with McEntire, Ball constructed a new still made out of whiskey barrels.
“I didn’t even know you could do that,” Ball says. “[The whiskey] came off the still already oak-flavored.”
Ball took the spirit to local sommeliers for feedback, including George Miliotes, then of Darden Restaurants, in Orlando, Florida.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe the flavors you have in this: apricots and pears,’ ” Ball says. “I was really pleased.”
Within a couple of years, Disney picked up the brand, showcasing a Moonshine Margarita. Made with St-Germain, orange juice and lime juice, it became a top-selling drink at the resort.
Fast-forward to today, and a new windfall has come Ball’s way. She’s been asked to appear on Discovery’s hit reality show Moonshiners to demonstrate how legal whiskey is made. They’ve even given her a nickname: the Moonshine Mama.
- 1The Experimentalist
- 2The Alt-Artisan
- 3The Pioneering Punster
- 4The History-Minded Locavores
- 5The Southern Gentleman
- 6The Moonshine Mama