On a Tuesday morning in mid-January, Scott Blackwell needed a forklift.
Standing on the loading dock of the former Sears warehouse at 311 Huger St., the co-founder of High Wire Distilling Co. shook his head. Behind him, a 9,000-pound, custom-built German pot still — a dazzling piece of booze-making copper the size of a backyard shed — sat on the polished concrete floor.
The dock would stay useless until someone could move the still, which remained clad with the plywood in which it’d crossed the Atlantic. But without the special, heavy-duty forklift that Blackwell rented, the one that was supposed to have shown up two hours ago, it was nothing doing.
At that point, the James Beard-nominated distillery, maker of artisanal spirits like New Southern Revival whiskey and Hat Trick gin, had less than a month to vacate its original location in downtown Charleston.
“We’re pushing,” said Blackwell.
In the muddy lot outside, workers maneuvered equipment on flatbed trailers in a holding pattern, waiting for an opening.
Launching a micro-distillery, which Blackwell and his co-founder and wife Ann Marshall did in 2013 with High Wire, is hard enough. Moving an already-operating distillery, once you’ve already got customers, a brand reputation and an established way of doing things, might be tougher. But it’s a logistical dance that Charleston’s liquor producers must undertake if they hope to grow.
According to the S.C. Department of Revenue, there are seven liquor micro-distilleries (those making 125,000 cases of booze or less annually) in Charleston County. Of these, three are either currently moving or have recently completed a move to newer, larger locations in the area.
High Wire headed up the peninsula; Charleston Distilling Co. closed its mid-King Street storefront in favor of a larger space on Johns Island; Firefly Distillery put Wadmalaw Island in its rearview mirror and set its sights on a new, $10 million compound in North Charleston.
Put another way, more than 40 percent of the county’s licensed liquor manufacturers are on the move. So The Post and Courier contacted those distilleries-in-motion, as well as a couple of outside experts, to learn what it takes to move a distillery without letting the existing business — and the vital reputation and cash flow on which it’s built — go down the drain.
Through a representative, Charleston Distilling owner Stephen Heilman declined to be interviewed. But the folks quarterbacking the relocation efforts at High Wire and Firefly were willing to discuss how they've dealt with the swirling cocktail of international logistics, tricky timelines and copious cash outlays.
"I think that my brain has shattered a little bit" during the years-long project, High Wire's Marshall said with a chuckle. “It’s a delicate choreography.”
Seeking more space
Rent or buy? It’s the question for anyone poised to make a residential move, and distilleries looking to expand, too.
After first signaling its plan to move closer to the peninsula five years ago, Firefly purchased its new home, a former transfer station property by Noisette Creek, for around $875,000 in 2017.
On the peninsula, Blackwell and Marshall spent 18 months searching for a suitable location for High Wire.
"The bulk of our time was spent looking for something to buy, but the math just didn’t work out,” Marshall said.
Instead, they inked a 25-year lease on 24,000 square feet of space in the gray warehouse tucked just west of the Interstate 26 overpass in downtown Charleston. The facility is roughly four times bigger than its previous home.
Of course, once you find a location, the work has just begun. High Wire invested around $1.5 million in an extensive renovation and build-out of its new home, designed by Dan Sweeney of Charleston's Stumphouse firm. Firefly, for its part, had to cap its newly acquired property with a layer of soil before it could break ground on its 21,000-square-foot distillery and 4,000-square-foot rickhouse.
Both distilleries have invested in handsome, expansive tasting rooms in which to tout their liquid wares. Firefly even built an outdoor concert venue on its property with an eye toward hosting music festivals and other events, and a mini museum showcasing South Carolina distilling history.
But before any of that fun can get underway, there's paperwork to do.
'Alcohol and red tape'
A representative for Firefly said the company experienced no regulatory delays or hurdles leading up to their move to North Charleston. At High Wire, Marshall acknowledged they worked through the same "bureaucratic touchpoints" as any business in downtown Charleston must, but said they were pleased with the city's responsiveness.
But just because both distilleries in question navigated their respective licensing and permitting processes successfully doesn't mean those processes are easy. The Post and Courier contacted Brook Bristow of Bristow Beverage Law, a West Ashley-based attorney who represents many area alcohol producers (but neither of the two in this story), to get a better sense for the legal and bureaucratic legwork distilleries must complete during a move.
"Welcome to the world of alcohol and red tape," he said.
Consider licensing, Bristow said. Companies must properly time the filing of their distillery transfer permit with the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to ensure they'll be able to make product at their new location as soon as possible once they’ve obtained a certificate of occupancy. And because South Carolina law dictates that distilleries, unlike breweries and wineries, “may not own or operate more than one plant, establishment, or place of business for the manufacture of alcoholic liquors in any one county of this (s)tate,” distillers moving intra-county, like Firefly and High Wire, must plan their move-out/move-in timelines strategically.
But in Bristow’s experience, that’s actually not where most relocations snag.
“Typically, the problems don’t occur on the alcohol licensing side ... (t)hey occur on the construction and local permitting side,” he said. ”Most delays — at least of late in Charleston — have occurred due to the length of time necessary to procure building permits, going through plan review, and then the length of time needed to complete construction. Many times, these can take months.”
Securing these permits is not necessarily easier for an existing distillery than it would be for a new one, said industry consultant Jake “Whiskey” Norris: "All the challenges of a start-up (distillery) are there." The founding head distiller of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey in Denver now helps distilling clients (High Wire and Firefly, not among them) across the country navigate their own expansions and moves.
Norris rattled off typical regulatory snags: "Getting your permitting, making sure everything is zoned properly, making sure the fire department is on board."
Even when it goes smoothly, it takes time — and occasionally more of it than food and beverage proprietors might expect. (Just ask Big Bad Breakfast's John Currence).
"If we were to be realistic and objective and if you were to ask us two years from now what it was like to go through the permitting process, we would probably say, 'OK, yeah, you know, that was probably correct,'" said High Wire's Marshall.
But "early in the race," she and Blackwell fretted over this or that approval, hoping paperwork wouldn't hinder their aggressive relocation timeline.
After all, if a distillery can't get permits, it can't open and fill orders.
As Jay Macmurphy, Firefly’s general manager and head distiller, put it: “If you can't fill orders, you're not making any money, and if you're not making the money, you can't pay.”
Let’s talk about filling orders. Specifically more orders, because growing production is one of the main reasons small distilleries go through this trouble in the first place. To increase capacity and output, distilleries must invest in new equipment — and lots of it.
Remember that shiny new still that temporarily gummed up the works during High Wire’s move-in last month? High Wire commissioned the piece from CARL Artisan Distilleries and Brewing Systems, a family-owned manufacturer from southern Germany, in late 2018. Blackwell estimated that the design went through a half-dozen revisions before going into production. Because of the long lead time required, High Wire had to order the still before it even knew which building it would be moving into. That made the design process “a little bit of a chicken or an egg situation,” Marshall said.
Upon arriving (via cargo ship, then truck) in downtown Charleston, the 20-foot copper still joined equipment that High Wire had ordered from vendors in Canada and North Carolina, from fermentors to hot liquor tanks to heat exchangers. Some of the hardware had to be ordered over a year in advance; other items were manufactured in just 12 weeks, a seemingly lengthy turnaround that Blackwell nevertheless characterized as "almost unheard of" in the distillery business.
“The equipment piece (of High Wire’s overall investment in the new space) is close to $900,000,” Marshall said. Between the 8,000-liter system they purchased new for the Huger Street plant and the 2,000-liter one they trucked over from their former home behind The Daily, the move will allow High Wire to increase liquor production five-fold.
Off Park Circle, Firefly’s North Charleston facility will house not only a brand-new 500-gallon still from Louisville’s Vendome Copper & Brassworks, but also its old 55-gallon unit from Wadmalaw to use for piloting recipes. Around the corner from gleaming new storage tanks and blending vats, Atwood has reconstituted the old bottling line from Wadmalaw with new automation and functionality from its manufacturer, Ladson’s In-Line Packaging Systems Inc.
If you’re wondering how one moves distillery equipment, it turns out it’s fairly similar to moving anything else: “We did that with a U-Haul truck,” Macmurphy said with a laugh.
The bottle bottleneck
One challenge looms larger than most: making sure there’s enough booze bottled and ready to ship to satisfy demand during the inevitable downtime that will arise between leaving the old place and lighting up the new one.
The choreography is tricky but crucial, said Ryan Atwood, Firefly's production manager. It's more efficient to make sure "you run out of your inventories at just the right time so you're not putting (bottles) all on a truck just to drive it" from the old place to the new, he explained.
And there’s red tape to consider here, too, Bristow said. To keep a close eye on packaged product and ensure it’s taxed appropriately, the federal government requires distilleries to file for permission to move already-bottled booze once it's "out of bond." Those requests can be denied, he said, so distilleries "are typically better off just putting all packaged product into distribution" before they depart.
Of course, it also helps to have a partner.
Thanks to its 2008 joint-venture with New Orleans’ Sazerac Co., much of the production of Firefly’s widely popular Sweet Tea Vodka and other products takes place at the conglomerate’s facilities in Kentucky. Production and distribution of those products should not be disrupted. (Sazerac’s public relations manager declined to elaborate on the details of this business arrangement).
Still, the old Wadmalaw facility produced all the product Firefly sold in South Carolina, and every jar of the moonshine it sells nationally. That liquor will soon flow from the farmhouse-styled facility on the banks of Noisette Creek. Until it does, Atwood's stockpiles will have to hold.
“For several weeks, we're not gonna be able to keep up with orders, so we (maintain) higher inventories in order to be able to refill orders that do come in,” he said.
At High Wire, which has no such partner, Marshall and Blackwell built in six weeks of production downtime. They made enough of their products (particularly their botanical gin, on which Marshall expects an uptick in demand as the weather improves) to hold them over until the big still at 311 Huger St. starts putting out liquor.
“We forecasted out through Charleston Wine + Food (Festival, taking place March 4-8) because that's always a big product outlay for us,” Marshall said. She’s optimistic that their reserves will allow them to keep their wholesale shipping operation open even if they can’t begin production by Feb. 17 as planned.
In the first week of February, High Wire distilled its final batch of liquor at 652 King St., a run of its New Southern Revival rye whiskey. Shortly after, they packed up their small bottling line and drove it five blocks north.
Only one payload remained to shuttle up the peninsula to the distillery's new home: rick upon rick, row after row, of liquor aging in heavy hardwood barrels.
For any distillery, transporting liquor barrels from the old rickhouse to the new one is a vital, difficult challenge. After all, 53-gallon drums full of booze are not the most cooperative cargo.
“Each one weighs just a bit over 500 pounds,” Norris said. “You have to do lots and lots of trips so you don't exceed the weight limit of the truck. Physically, it’s just a very challenging part” of moving.
Plus, depending on the value of the liquor inside, each barrel could represent hundreds if not thousands of dollars in investment for the distillery.
Legally, barrels typically must be moved by “a transfer in bond with copious record-keeping requirements,” Bristow said. (Joked Norris: “You will not get one over on Uncle Sam.")
To chip away at Firefly’s barrel burden, Macmurphy, who is bonded himself, made a habit of trucking two barrels from Wadmalaw to North Charleston every time he made the trip. The rest, he and Atwood brought by trailer in early February. The new rickhouse, set off from the distillery proper, can store 600 barrels, a major upgrade over the old Wadmalaw facility, where barrels went "wherever we could put 'em," Macmurphy said.
High Wire moved its barrels by truck, as well, but not before briefly entertaining another approach.
“One of our employees suggested that we have a rolling party, and just roll the barrels down the street,” Marshall said. "That would be an event in Charleston that’d be talked about in 100 years," she said, laughing.
Plus: no forklift necessary.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo of a United Rentals reach forklift moving a fermentor at High Wire Distilling Co.’s new location. A different company, not United Rentals, was responsible for the forklift that was two hours late to the jobsite.