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Vodka maker bringing operations from Upstate to Charleston

The owners of a clear liquor with Lowcountry roots soon will bring production home to Charleston.

Sweet Grass Vodka will be produced and bottled in The Refinery on Meeting Street Road as soon as the 7,000-square-foot space is upfitted on the ground floor of the three-story, mixed-used building.

Co-owners Jarrod and Alicia Swanger of Mount Pleasant and Brian Friedopfer of Chicago, along with investor Victor Webster of Florence, determined earlier this year it would take too long to get up and running with a ground-up facility in the Charleston area, so they started production last spring at Rock Bottom Distillers in Spartanburg. 

Sweet Grass Vodka plans.jpg

Jarrod Swanger, co-owner of Sweet Grass Vodka, goes over plans for the company's new space inside The Refinery on Meeting Street Road on Dec. 9 in Charleston. The vodka-maker plans to begin bottling operations in late January and open the tasting room by the spring. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Build-out of the new upper peninsula site was expected to start before the end of December, Swanger said.

When finished, tentatively by the spring, the upfitted site will include the distillery, bottling operation, tasting room and small prep kitchen. 

Bottling could begin by late January, with the rest of the facility opening when the weather turns a bit warmer. An outdoor patio area on the building's back side will be added to the site as well.

Swanger, the majority owner, looked at several properties in East Cooper, but he ran into a few snags.

"We went through about seven offers in Mount Pleasant," Swanger said. "Finally, we were going to build and permitting was going to take a year, so we met with The Refinery and decided to go there. Eventually, we want to do a bigger location in Mount Pleasant as well, but the downtown site will always be the flagship location."

The current Upstate operation is done by hand, making 600 750-milliliter, or roughly 25-ounce, bottles a day. When the new operation is completed in The Refinery, a $1 million investment in machinery will allow the company to produce about 15,000 bottles a day, Swanger said.

Sweet Grass Vodka bottle

Alicia Swanger, one of the owners of Sweet Grass Vodka, holds one of the company's bottles inside the future location at The Refinery on Meeting Street Road on Dec. 9 in Charleston. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Sweet Grass Vodka production will average 2,500 bottles a day. The extra capacity will be used to bottle other brands.

The total investment in the new location is about $2 million.

The vodka can be found in several Charleston-area liquor stores and is available in 189 Winn-Dixie supermarkets in Florida, 243 Spec's alcoholic beverage shops in Texas as well as the Liquor Barn chain in Chicago and other retail sites in Georgia, Tennessee and Nevada.

Made mostly from South Carolina-grown potatoes, when in season, along with water and yeast, the vodka retails for about $25 a bottle. It does not include artificial flavoring.

The company's website says the vodka is continuously distilled for "a smooth taste ... that allows the unique notes of potatoes grown in this region to shine through."

"This process filters away the unpleasant ethanol taste and odor that remain after the first, second and third distillation," according to the firm's website. "After the fifth distillation, any impurities have been filtered away."

The upstart vodka firm recently picked up three awards from the Global Spirits Masters during blind tastings that are divided into 14 separate competitions. They include "Best Organic Vodka," "Best Smooth Vodka" and "Best Microdistillery."

Webster, an investor and South Carolina native with family in Charleston, looks forward to bringing the business to the Lowcountry.

"It means a lot to us personally to be in Charleston and to grow in that city," Webster said by phone from Florence.

Sweet Grass Vodka's move to The Refinery brings the 45,000-square-foot building to 96 percent occupancy a little more than a year after the $15 million project was completed, according to Lindsay Nevin of Flyway, a property management and contracting firm that co-owns the structure.

Of the 17 commercial spaces in the building, everything has been leased except for a first-floor restaurant site and second-floor office space.

Beer collective The Whale opened during the summer on the structure's ground-floor back side, looking out over a 1,500-seat amphitheater that's expected to start performances in the spring, Nevin said.

The amphitheater will feature a covered stage, permanent restrooms and concessions in retrofitted shipping containers. A renovated railcar will serve as the greenroom for artists where they can relax before and after performances.

The Refinery's rooftop also can be used as a private event space. 

"Our goal was to build a centralized campus that would be an asset for the area, where people can come and work, then walk straight from the office to happy hour, dinner or a live show," Nevin said. "We hope The Refinery becomes the Lowcountry’s go-to spot for working and entertaining, for residents and visitors alike."

The building takes its name from the property's former use as an industrial complex for the former Standard Oil Co., part of which became what is now ExxonMobile Corp. Exxon, before its merger with Mobile in 1999, sold the property in the early 1960s.

Sweet Grass Vodka

Sweet Grass Vodka, now made and bottled in the Upstate, soon will be produced and packaged in The Refinery in Charleston. Sweet Grass Vodka/Provided

An electronics company moved into the older buildings at 1600 Meeting Street Road in 1965, but left in 1988 for a move to North Charleston. The building remained idle until 2011, when Nevin's Flyway enterprise of adaptive reuse transformed the site into office space.

Sweet Grass Vodka's lease brings the new Refinery building to 14 tenants in 15 of the 17 commercial spaces. Liollio Architecture leased two suites.

Along with The Whale, other tenants include Mountain Shore Properties, Green Rock, Hudson Cooper Design, Jane Pope Jewelry, Metal and Petal, Nice Brands, Ohm Radio, The Flyway Companies, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, TSWII Capital Advisors and Rebecca Atwood Designs.

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Reach Warren L. Wise at Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.