For four months, Charleston drinkers have been ogling Charleston Distilling Co., a new King Street distillery that's kept an active calendar of private events. But next week brings the first opportunity for liquor fans to sample the distillery's output, with regular tours and tastings starting on Monday.
Since opening last year, High Wire Distilling Co. and Striped Pig Distillery have developed strong local followings, but Charleston Distilling Co. master distiller Brent Stephens is confident Charlestonians will embrace another hometown liquor. "If a person has loyalty, it's to a national brand," he says. "That's your real battle."
Charleston Distilling Co. is fighting the battle with three spirits, with a fourth slated to debut in a few weeks. Until the barrel-aged gin is ready to bottle, though, the line-up consists of King Charles Vodka; Jasper's Gin, and Tolerance, a 74 proof ginger liqueur with enough cinnamon character to please Fireball devotees.
The vodka was distilled from corn and rye grown on a Summerton farm that belongs to the head distiller's cousin. "I've had a lot of corn-only vodka," Stephens says. "It's too sweet. I've always loved vodka with a little bit of flavor."
Although Stephens ultimately decided to reduce the amount of rye in the mash bill, it adds welcome toasty notes to the vodka, which is largely sweet and buttery. Not bad, but a few sips of my sample pour gave me an instantaneous headache, generally a sign that the heads, heart and tails weren't precisely cut (The heart is the drinkable alcohol: The heads, more volatile than alcohol, include wood alcohol and acetone. The less-volatile tails can help make a spirit taste fuller and oilier, but they're also responsible for harsh flavors and nasty hangovers. The art of distilling lies in separating out those impurities.)
Stephens suggests enjoying Jasper's Gin without any citrus, since there's already lime and bitter orange in the seven-botanical mix. Their flavors are very apparent, along with a eucalyptus-like tang. Although I didn't have the opportunity to try it in a cocktail, Stephens says he and Proof's Craig Nelson made every classic gin cocktail with the Jasper's, and it checked out.
The forthcoming aged gin features cinnamon and star anise. "I love that one," says Stephens, who barreled both gins to determine which one would better respond to the process.
In addition to the aged gin, planned future releases include rye whiskey and honeysuckle liqueur next year, followed by straight whiskey in 2016.
Tours of the distillery at 501B King St. will be offered hourly from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. during the week, while weekend tours will be offered according to walk-in interest. (There's likely to be plenty of it, which is why Stephens is staffing the tasting room on Saturdays with five or six employees.) For more information, visit charlestondistilling.com.