A Trio of Southeastern Craft Distilleries
Article by Susan Reigler
Prohibition came to parts of the South earlier than it did nationally. It lasted longer there, too. That makes for some interesting stories surrounding these relative newcomers to the whiskey-making world.
Southern Distilling Company
211 Jennings Road, Statesville, NC 28625
More than a decade ago, Pete and Vienna Barger were looking for an opportunity to own and operate a family business. They examined several options, including a dredging company, before a conversation at Pete’s family farm in his native Statesville resulted in the idea of a distillery. It so happened that the city with 18th Century roots owed its 19th Century prosperity to the spirits industry.
Located in the geographic center of North Carolina and surrounded by thousands of square miles of cultivated fields, Statesville was the place where farm-distilled spirits were brought for numerous large-scale wholesalers and rectifiers to purchase, bottle, and sell. Statesville was a railroad hub, so whiskey and brandy from central North Carolina were shipped throughout the country.
But the temperance movement was rolling through North Carolina, and in 1903, Statesville went dry. According to Vienna Barger, all those farmer distillers either “went up into the hills in North Carolina and became what was our illustrious moonshine trade here, or they headed over to Kentucky and Tennessee.”
The eradication of what had been the town’s economic engine was so complete that it wasn’t until the Bargers were doing research to launch into the distilling business that they even became aware of that history. They had no idea they were reviving a large piece of Statesville’s heritage.
Pete is a mechanical engineer, and once the Bargers determined that they would contract-distill for other brands as well as make their own whiskey, he set about designing Southern Distilling Company to accommodate those needs.
The 25,000-square-foot, glass-fronted distillery opened in 2013. It sits on 20 acres next to Interstate 77, about 10 minutes’ drive from the city center. The entrance opens into a spacious tasting room and shop with an antique bar and a comfortable corner furnished with leather sofas, upholstered chairs, and Oriental rugs. The gleaming distillery equipment is visible on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
Even without taking a formal tour, visitors can watch the staff, including Distillery Operations Manager Susan Signor, working at the equipment. About 80 percent of the current distillate is for contract customers, with the rest for their own Southern Star High Rye Bourbon. In addition to the standard expression, a reserve (small-batch), cask-strength, single-barrel, and white whiskey are available.
Double Shot Coffee Bourbon Cream Liqueur has been a very successful product for Southern Distilling. Later in 2019, they will release a Celebrated Old Hunting Creek Rye Whiskey, which has a direct connection to Statesville’s whiskey past. The brand was once distilled in Statesville and distributed by J.C. Somers & Co. of Asheville. The Bargers secured the name’s trademark, thus restoring another piece of local history.
Leiper’s Fork Distillery
3381 Southall Road, Franklin, TN 37064
The distillers who headed to Tennessee from Statesville didn’t get much of a reprieve. The Volunteer State got a head start on the Volstead Act by ushering in its own alcohol prohibition in 1909, shuttering the 270 distilleries that had been producing liquor. Not until 1938, five years after repeal, was distilling again permitted—and then in only three of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
Famously (or infamously), while state law now allows tastings at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, the rest of Moore County, in which it is located, is dry. George Dickel, the other major Tennessee whiskey distillery, is in Coffee County.
Those two liquor giants dominated production in the state until a law passed in 2009 allowed distilling in more than 40 additional counties. That’s when Lee Kennedy decided to turn his distilling hobby into a business.
As a teenager, Kennedy had become fascinated with the distilling process. A devotee of the Foxfire Books series that described Appalachian folkways, he used a chapter entitled “Moonshining Is a Fine Art” as a guide. When he went away to college, he took with him the small still his uncle had built for him out of a pressure cooker, some copper tubing, and a bucket.
In 2009, Kennedy could at last build a distillery on property he owned just outside of Franklin, a handsome town near Nashville with beautifully restored and maintained historic homes and a town center featuring a variety of restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques.
Kennedy moved a two-story log house built in 1825 onto the property to serve as the visitors center, tasting room, gift shop, and distillery offices. In fine weather, visitors can relax in wooden rocking chairs on the front porch. A stone fireplace in the tasting room provides the perfect backdrop in winter.
Just behind the log house, on the other side of a space furnished with picnic tables, is the barnlike distillery building. With sturdy wooden rafters and plank siding, it emulates historic farm distilleries of the region, though it contains far more state-of-the art equipment.
Kennedy and distiller Catlin Christian tend the 150-year-old cypress fermentation vats and a custom-designed still from Vendome Copper & Brass Works named Miss Ginger. Using locally grown grains from surrounding Williamson County, they are making a Tennessee whiskey with a mash bill of 70 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 15 percent malted barley, and a bourbon that uses 70 percent corn, 15 percent wheat, and 15 percent malted barley.
Scheduled to be released later in 2019 is a rye whiskey that is 55 percent rye, 30 percent corn, and 15 percent malted barley.
Meanwhile, visitors can sample new-make Tennessee whiskey and rye, as well as the sourced Colonel Hunter’s Tennessee Select Bourbon. This is a 10-year-old spirit named for Henry Hunter, who fought the Britisn at the Battle of New Orleans alongside Andrew Jackson and who once operated a still on the property now occupied by Leiper’s Fork.
MB Roland Distillery
137 Barkers Mill Road, Pembroke, KY 42266
Prohibition came crashing down on Kentucky’s distilleries, along with those in the rest of the nation, in 1920. While the recovery did not take as long as it did in neighboring Tennessee, even several years into the 21st Century almost three-quarters of the state’s 120 counties were still dry. In fact, a frequent quip about Kentucky was that “Christian County is wet and Bourbon County is dry.”
In the past decade, that has changed. With the economic benefits of alcohol sales overcoming lingering temperance lobbies, drink sales are prohibited in fewer than a third of Kentucky counties today. (Bourbon County is among the recently wet.) While Christian County was never home to more than a handful of small distilleries before Prohibition, a farmer distiller from North Carolina might feel very much at home at a distillery operating there today.
The logo for MB Roland that graces the Exit 89 attractions sign on I-24 northbound is of an iconic American barn flanked by a pair of tall silos. These are at the center of the distillery located on what had been an Amish dairy farm when owners Paul and Merry Beth Tomaszewski purchased the property in 2009.
The farmhouse, with a covered front porch that serves as a concert venue during the summer, contains the visitors center and gift shop. When the distillery started, Paul—who came to the area when he was in the Army and stationed at nearby Fort Campbell—was the only operator. Today, there’s a staff of more than a dozen employees, but a reminder of the early days can be seen in the original small copper still that sits next to the company’s sign by the farmhouse.
While MB Roland is now a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, it’s still a relatively small operation. Distilling takes place in a building across the lawn from the farmhouse. Barrels are stored in the barn, which has been refitted with ricks. There’s also a square wooden building that a tour guide will explain is “not an oversized outhouse.” It’s a smokehouse important to one whiskey in MB Roland’s impressively large portfolio of products.
Kentucky Dark Fired Whiskey is distilled with locally sourced corn that has spent time in the smokehouse, giving it distinctive flavor notes the distillery describes as “campfire and BBQ.” Like all of MB Roland’s aged products, it is uncut and unfiltered.
In other products—bourbon, rye, malt whiskey, and an array of fruit-flavored shines—ingredients include food-grade white corn and red winter wheat, as well as rye and malted barley. The shines are made with real fruit. The Tomaszewskis also practice a rare, and refreshing, transparency on their labels, which all state the mash bills; batch, barrel, and char level numbers; and an age statement.