A Spirited Adventure
Big profits are still in the works, but prime product is already dripping from these pioneer enterprises of the Alabama liquor industry.
Up the holler and right downtown, pioneers are reawakening a long-hidden art — dusting off recipes and practicing an alchemy that existed long before Revenuers came to town and ABC agents ruled the land.
You won’t find it on the state’s official list of trails, but you can make a fine trek along the totally unofficial Alabama Spirits Trail these days and meet those pioneers, reinventing the fine art of distilling spirits.
These pioneers are no fools, quite possibly foxes, staking a spot in an industry where sales could exceed $50 billion by 2020, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.
The science is easy: Alcohol turns to steam at about 175 degrees, while water dawdles until 212 degrees. With the right tubing and condensers, you can harvest and purify the liquid that makes people walk funny.
The business end of it is less simple. An unscientific polling by Business Alabama found that most of the state’s distillers aren’t making much money yet, but some are using prior ventures into craft brewing or winemaking to support distilling. Others squeeze revenue from tasting rooms and tour events.
Alabama distillers have one more thing swirling around them besides the spirits they lure from fruit, corn and grains — the mishmash of state and federal laws that govern them, often antiquated, seldom business-friendly.
Case in point: You can’t apply for a distilling license, according to federal rules, until you have your distillery built and ready to go. But it’s illegal to possess a still, even for display purposes, unless you hold other non-alcohol permits.
If nothing else, it’s given the state’s distillers a reason to band together. “There’s a bit of a trench mentality,” one distiller confessed.
Last year, the state Legislature set up a study commission, looking for input from city officials, neighboring states and players in the spirits industry, hoping for insight about whether the state’s distilling laws need an update. Right now distillers can only sell directly through tasting rooms, a shot at a time. A new proposal would allow direct sales — with no ABC middleman — but limited to one 750-milliliter bottle of spirits per customer per year.
While distillers want to sell through their own doors, the bottle-a-year threshold doesn’t do much for them, particularly given the comparable volume of beer that brewers could sell, about a case a day.
Distillers also must pay the same amount of federal tax as the big established distilleries, while Alabama breweries and wineries pay a reduced federal tax due to their size.
“We’re happy for the craft beer people, we just want equal treatment,” says Melinda Williams, owner of Mad County Winery in Huntsville.
And don’t ask them what they think about a Kentucky-made product, Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey, being the official “State Spirit of Alabama.” Their replies might be unprintable.
Here are some of the key players along our Alabama Spirits Trail.
1. Irons Distillery
2211 Seminole Drive SW, Huntsville // J. Jeffrey Irons, proprietor
Irons is a well-known name in Huntsville, due to ironSclad Solutions, a business marketing company he started in 2001 for the city’s smaller aerospace and defense companies. In August 2015, he opened a 700-square-foot tasting room at Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment.
He makes whiskey, from grain to bottle. “I buy my corn locally, my rye and barley from a local brewer’s supply called Straight to Ale. I want this to be our community whiskey, harkening back to days when every neighborhood had a baker, a fishmonger and a distiller who produced whiskey for folks.”
His operation is paying for itself and even making a little money, Irons says. He produces seven gallons a week and says the operation can easily double production when necessary.
He deals with ABC through a distributor and holds occasional tasting events, which are
2. Mad County Winery
121 Castle Drive, Madison // The Rev. Cotton & Melinda Williams, proprietors
It’s a hole in the wall place stuck inside an anonymous business park, hosted by a man who cheerfully notes he was “hit in the head a lot in the ’80s” when he was a police officer in Houston. And it’s not to be missed, because you can’t buy crazy, you can only rent it.
“I’ve been making alcohol in one form or another most of my life, but I’ve found being a winemaker has made us much better distillers,” says Cotton Williams.
He makes Alabama Arsenal Rum, which bears his image on the label. His generic term for it is “old-school sugar jack,” and Williams says it’s like getting hit in the chest with a baseball bat “but it’s so smooth in its character it’s like a baseball bat wrapped in velvet.”
Mad County delivers about eight cases a week to ABC’s warehouse, but the company’s profits still come mostly from wine sales. Theirs is the only tasting room where the proprietor will drink with you, and, after reaching the right blood-alcohol level, use his drawing skills to document your “tiki soul.”
3. Blue Pants Brewery
500 Lanier Road, Building 1, Suite A, Madison // Michael Spratley, Owner
Blue Pants, a popular craft brewery, acquired its distilling license in 2014 and sells its whiskey, vodka, limoncello and gin exclusively through its taproom.
The company recently acquired a new modular still, which allows it to make about any type of spirit, Michael Spratley says. By stacking the still taller, it filters out more impurities for such products as vodka, while a shorter still leaves in elements desired for whiskey production.
4. Old Black Bear Brewing Co.
212 Main St., Madison // Todd and Dawn Seaton, proprietors
Operating out of downtown Madison, this brewery holds a distilling license and is currently making vodka. It’s connected to a taproom and restaurant and prides itself on quality products, innovation and hard work, according to its website.
5. Jack Daniels Cooperage
Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex, Trinity
While it doesn’t make spirits, we included the Jack Daniels Cooperage on our trail in an honorary capacity, because it makes charred white oak barrels for Tennessee’s legendary distiller. The ultramodern facility opened in 2014 and at full capacity will employ 200 Alabamians.
6. Avondale Spirits
201 41st St. S., Birmingham // Nate Darnell, head distiller
Born with a formidable brewery name, Avondale produces craft spirits from grain to glass, served at the Wooden Goat, its restaurant and tasting room. Nate Darnell says they’ve started small, with a 50-gallon still that produces 50 to 75 bottles a week. “We’re making money because it’s all retail sales by the glass, while the other guys are just distributing and making small margins on bottles,” he says.
Their setup also allows him to experiment, doing 30-bottle test runs that hit the tasting room for immediate feedback.
They’re skipping bourbon but are working on a vodka and several gin varieties. Grain whiskey and smoked whiskey are in their future, once they acquire more barrels. “Our base Avondale whiskey is kind of a takeoff of a Belgian quadruple, with notes of dark fruit, cherry, figs and chocolate,” Darnell says.
7. Paul Sutton Reserve Distillery
3024 3rd Ave. S., Birmingham
Not yet in full production.
8. Redmont Distilling Co. LLC
2824A 5th Ave S., Birmingham // Stephen Watts, Jake Hendon, proprietors
Birmingham’s first legal distillery since Prohibition is run by Florence natives and Auburn graduates Stephen Watts and Jake Hendon. Thus far, it produces vodka and is working on a gin that should be released shortly. Watts says they eventually want to produce whiskey and aged rum but are taking it slow to develop the best products possible.
“We don’t have a tasting room yet. We think it would be profitable and help marketing, but it’s expensive and time-intensive,” Watts says. While a tasting room might be two years off, their liquor is already moving into ABC stores, restaurants and bars. “Our vodka is 100 percent corn, gluten free, distilled and bottled in Birmingham, and, frankly, it’s delicious.”
John Emerald Distilling’s father and son team, John and Jimmy Sharp, operate a tasting room in Opelika alongside their sophisticated distillery.
9. John Emerald Distilling Co. LLC
706 N. Railroad Ave., Opelika // John and Jimmy Sharp, proprietors
Housed in an old downtown cotton warehouse and armed with some of the state’s most sophisticated, high-capacity equipment, many cite John Emerald Distilling as the state’s alpha distiller.
Father and son John and Jimmy Sharp make single malt whiskey, rum, spice rum and gin, with the help of their 350-gallon pot still and quadruple distilling column. “Over Christmas, we sold over a hundred cases of the whiskey, but, on average, we sell about 20 cases a week,” John Sharp says. They sell blended vodka under separate label.
Sharp notes that their tasting room is “a great source of revenue” that wouldn’t be legal in Georgia. “Alabama’s not a bad distillery state, and they’re trying to modernize alcohol laws, but we don’t like the bottle-a-year rule. The amount of alcohol they’re talking about restricts us but not the beer guys. We just want everybody treated fairly.”
Sharp says the company was a comparatively big startup and hasn’t yet turned a profit, but they believe that their built-in capacity positions them for growth.
10. High Ridge Spirits LLC
12761 County Road 7, Troy // Jamie Ray, head distiller
High Ridge, the first legal distiller in Alabama since Prohibition, is the maker of Stills Crossroads Alabama ’Shine. Favorably reviewed in Southern Living: “This 100-proof ’shine — distilled in a former horse barn — has a subtle sweetness.”
According to the company’s website, they also produce gin and flavored moonshine “with the pure water of Union Springs.” Clyde May, an iconic Alabama moonshiner, was from Bullock County.
11. Gibson Distilling Co.
228 Keelarney Lane, Dothan // George Keel, proprietor
Founded in 2014 near the banks of the Little Chattahoochee River, Gibson produces “easy drinking” corn and rye whiskey, according to the company website. Gibson Whiskey is single barrel whiskey, mellowed by hardwood charcoal, aged in oak barrels and then mellowed again. “Making the best requires time, a lot of effort and good ingredients — and the family recipe helps a lot too,” according to the site.
Seth Dettling, owner of Big Escambia Spirits, draws a sample using a thief.
12. Big Escambia Spirits LLC
1185 Goat Feathers Lane, Atmore // Seth Dettling, proprietor
One of the state’s most sophisticated and ambitious distilling operations has directions that include “turn right at the state prison” and “look for Goat Feathers Lane.” Seth Dettling has what he says amounts to $1.2 million of spirits in his rickhouse, including barrels of genuine bourbon that, at bottling, will have aged two years in toasted white oak.
He’s also making rum with three different flavor models, based on ingredients and the kegs in which they age. A real estate appraiser by trade, he takes a precise approach to everything he does, including labels, which capture the seriousness of his work. His remote location in Escambia County won’t be attracting many tourists — there are no tasting room or tours at this point in his business model.
Dettling gets excited talking about Alabama’s potential for high-quality bourbon. The state’s high temperatures, he argues, create pressure in the barrels that pushes the bourbon deep into the staves and then out again when the temperature drops at night. “Alabama’s climate — it gets stinking hot down here, so imagine that No. 1 barrel in August when it’s 120 degrees at the top of our building, so hot you can’t touch it. The spirits are oxidizing and it’s going to create a geographically identifiable result.”
Dave Helms is a copy editor for Business Alabama and Matthew Coughlin (Big Escambia photos) and Cary Norton (John Emerald photos) are freelance contributors. Helms is based in Mobile, Coughlin in Pensacola and Norton in Birmingham.