Craft distilling is still fairly new to South Carolina, but the state's long agricultural history may be critical to the budding sector's success.
Borrowing a tactic from West coast spirit producers, the first distillery to open in downtown Charleston is planning to distinguish its liquors with Southern-grown herbs, corn, sugar cane and sorghum.
“We live in a really vibrant agricultural community,” said Ann Marshall of High Wire Distilling Co., which will open Sept. 12 in a former painting contractor's warehouse at 652 King St., alongside Butcher & Bee. “There are a lot of things we can do.”
Among the first things they are doing is a rhum agricole, made with cane grown by a family friend who raises row crops near Cameron. They're also developing a sorghum whiskey, inspired partly by Mike Lata's signature sticky sorghum cake and conversations with John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Both spirits are set for release in the fall.
With microdistilling booming across the country — the American Distilling Institute puts the industry's annual growth rate at 30 percent — it has become increasingly important for spirit makers to “come up with a story,” said Scott Newitt, president of Wadmalaw Island's Firefly Distillery, the 9-year-old granddaddy of the state's craft-distilling scene.
Since 2007-08, when Firefly successfully lobbied for a reduction of the distillery licensing fee, previously a prohibitive $50,000 a year to $2,500, and the legalization of on-site tastings and sales, half a dozen distilleries have announced plans to open in South Carolina.
Locally, High Wire soon will be joined by Charleston Distilling Co. and Striped Pig Distillery.
“When we got the law changed, it was the end of the world with the recession,” Newitt said. “I think it's starting to flourish now. But these craft distillers are going to have to come up with a story, like we did: We're using all-American stuff and keeping it all Southern with sweet tea. Places struggle if they don't have a story.”
Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, said fears that craft spirits won't sell unless they're scented with flowers that don't grow beyond the county line are probably exaggerated. Because the entry cost for distilling is so extraordinarily high, most distilling operations are too well-financed to fail, he said.
Over the past decade, Owens has seen hundreds of craft distilleries open. He's seen only three of them go under.
“You come to my conference, you don't see a bunch of kids with tattoos,” Owens said. “These are serious business people.”
Marshall and her husband, Scott Blackwell, certainly fit that profile. The couple previously owned Immaculate Baking Co., which Blackwell, a Culinary Institute of America-trained baker, enjoyed until he started spending more time in boardrooms than test kitchens. They sold the operation to General Mills last year.
“The beauty of spirits is the margins are a lot better than cookies,” Blackwell said. “A case of cookies costs $18. A case of spirits costs $200. The effort that goes into one unit gets you a lot further dollar-wise.”
At High Wire, Blackwell again will have an opportunity to indulge his baker's instincts, tinkering with infusions and experimenting with various grains — within the boundaries of federal law, which has plenty to say on the subject of liquor.
“It's not very chef-like to run it by people when you want to do something,” Blackwell said, but the law leaves some room for fooling with mash bills and barrels. Former Maker's Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell, who consulted on the project, gave Blackwell his blessing to do so after spending a week fielding Blackwell's highly technical questions about ingredients and wood.
“We're going to stub our toe occasionally,” Blackwell conceded. “Something may taste foul, and we may think it tastes foul. But I think it's cool for Charleston to watch us experiment.”
Owens said the tourism potential of craft distilleries is enormous. “You have a good gift shop with candles, T-shirts and jellies, you can do $3,000 a weekend,” he said. According to Owens, the draw of distilleries, as compared with wineries and breweries, is an easy-to-explain production process and impressive piece of equipment.
The centerpiece of High Wire's 6,000-square-foot facility, which already has been booked for Mississippi chef John Currence's November book party and the Southern Foodways Alliance's Charleston Wine + Food Festival dinner, is a 530-gallon, hand-built copper column still from Germany. So far, the still has pumped out rum and vodka.
High Wire's vodka is a tad corn syrupy, but its unaged rum has an appealing cinnamon toast quality. After spending three months in bourbon barrels, the rum picks up rye notes and a vanilla finish, giving the spirit a corned-beef-sandwich-and-cream-soda cast.
The vodka and silver rum will be the first bottles sold, with gin joining the line-up in October.
The gin and future whiskeys will be marketed under different names, but Marshall said the spirits' South Carolina roots will be apparent to drinkers who spy them at bars across the country. “It's going to be a good ambassador for Charleston,” Marshall promised.
Although Owens said it's still too early to accurately quantify how much distilleries contribute to their local economies, Newitt pointed out that South Carolina collects $13.50 in tax revenue for every case of Firefly vodka sold. And while craft distilleries aren't major job creators, High Wire plans to hire a few people to staff its operation, which will offer tours three days a week.
“They're employing people,” Owens said. “If you do a distillery and dare put an ad in the paper saying you're looking for an employee, you'd have to turn down 200 people who just want to sweep the floor.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.