Producing potent potables: Craft distilleries set their sights on Charleston
Several craft breweries have sprung up across Charleston over the past few years.
Now, mom-and-pop makers of the harder stuff are having their turn, drawn by the rebounding economy and legislative changes that South Carolina enacted several years ago.
No fewer than three craft liquor distilleries are in the late-development stage across the Charleston region, with two coming to King Street. They will join the more-established Firefly Distillery on Wadmalaw Island, giving the Charleston area at least four commercial liquor-making operations.
Striped Pig Distillery hopes to start production by next month in a 7,200-square-foot warehouse in North Charleston. High Wire Distilling plans to have everything in place by midsummer in an 8,000-square-foot former warehouse on Upper King Street near the Crosstown Expressway. Charleston Distilling Co. looks to be serving samples by October in a 10,500-square-foot building in the heart of a redevelopment hotbed just south of High Wire’s operation.
The industry’s growth in the Lowcountry reflects national trends.
From January 2010 to September 2012, the number of licensed micro-distilleries in the country doubled to 180, according to Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group projects there are about 250 craft distillers today, a number that’s only expected to climb.
“I think it would be reasonable to assume that the industry will continue to grow rapidly, particularly as states continue to modernize laws and regulations,” Coleman said. “Whether all of them find viability in the marketplace is another question entirely.”
In 2009, South Carolina passed legislation with less cumbersome regulatory obstacles for small businesses to make liquor. The early interest was lukewarm, as the severe economic downdraft a few years ago deterred startup investors from buying the equipment and licenses needed to produce their own potent potables.
But as the recession faded, those looking to fashion their own booze pulled their plans off the shelf and put them into action.
The liquor-making uptick in the region is a natural extension of the booming craft beer business in South Carolina, according to one of the startups.
And the activity isn’t limited to Charleston, a city known for being tolerant of tippling. A couple of other distilleries have sprung up in the Upstate.
The new crop of distillers also witnessed the rapid growth at Wadmalaw-based Firefly, one of the earliest local pioneers. It caught lightning in a bottle even before state laws were relaxed with its now-famous sweet-tea-flavored vodka.
“When people start making money in a new industry, everybody starts running,” said High Wire Distilling co-owner Scott Blackwell, who sold his Immaculate Baking Co. to General Mills in December and is in the middle of renovating a former joggling board warehouse at 682 King St. for his next venture. “It says a lot about Charleston for three to be coming here at the same time. With everything happening in Charleston, the buzz is here right now.”
At Striped Pig Distillery, which sits off Azalea Drive in North Charleston, co-owner Todd Weiss attributes the interest in distilling to a logical result of the growth and success of micro-breweries. Charleston is home to about a half-dozen local beermakers, while nearly 2,400 have sprouted across the nation over the past decade.
Weiss expects the local micro-distillers to band together and lobby for the overall industry. Until then, he welcomes the competition and expects it to be friendly.
“We have one or two secrets up our sleeve that will help make us a little more competitive,” he said.
Brent Stephens, an attorney who left the legal profession to start a new career in the distilling business, said Charleston is actually a little behind some other areas of the country.
Stephens, who is president and master distiller for the Charleston Distilling Co. at 501 King St., said he recently returned from Colorado, where more than 40 liquormaking operations have fired up.
Washington, Oregon, California and New York also are major players already.
“Charleston is a great location and has a great history,” Stephens said. “With all the tourist traffic, it’s the logical place to be.”
Jim Irvin, co-owner of Firefly Distillery, which makes vodka, bourbon, rum and moonshine, welcomes the growing wave of rival alcohol producers.
At the same time, he said, not all of those popping up across the nation will survive.
Irvin predicted that in five or six years, the availability of cheaper distilling equipment will flood the market as some alcohol producers fail, forcing weaker operators to make their last call.
“Those who have a good business plan will survive. Others won’t,” Irvin said. “I’ve tasted some of them (in other states), and some of them don’t know what they are doing that well.”
As for those coming to Charleston on the heels of Firefly’s success, he wished them well.
“They all need to send me a letter and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.