Standing in a shadowy tin hangar on a recent Saturday, with plumes of corn flour snowing on his blue jeans and boots, Charleston Distilling Co.'s head distiller, Mikell Elliot, is ripe for a Footloose-style warehouse dance. And for a second there we thought he might bust out into a Kenny Loggins musical montage. After all, one gets a little loopy after milling 4,000 pounds of corn and rye on a 97 degree day in Summerton, S.C. But, Elliott says, the effort is worth it in order to produce South Carolina-made liquor. And now that Charleston Distilling Co. opens on Mon. July 14, locals will finally get a taste of what he's talking about.
Just like Elliott's bumpy ride up to his cousin Roger "Bubba" Flowers Jr.'s Farm in Summerton, the road to opening Charleston Distilling Co. has been a long one. Construction and months of waiting for bottles to arrive saw Elliott, along with owners Steve Heilman and Brent Stephens (master distiller), changing their launch date at least two times. But the results, by the looks of the place, are pretty remarkable. The third distillery to hit the city in the past two years (joining Striped Pig and High Wire), Charleston Distilling Co. is arguably the most glamorous. The glimmering copper-framed affair on King Street features one 1,000-liter and one 2,000-liter Kothe still, floor-to-ceiling barrel-shaped bathrooms, and an upstairs event space complete with a giant TV and a treadmill. But for all the buckets of money poured into the investment, Stephens says it's what goes in the bottles that counts.
"When the law changed in 2009 to allow micro-distillers, I knew I wanted to open one in South Carolina with South Carolina products," says Stephens. The former attorney, who left law when his passion for distilling started to take over his every vacation, quickly moved home and partnered with his buddy Elliott to start crafting a business plan. The idea was to launch a distillery that year, but after an investment fell through, a serendipitous introduction to a Chicago commodities trader saved the day. That trader was Heilman, who just happened to be looking to swap his desk job in Illinois for a life making liquor in Charleston.
"We sat down for dinner, and by the time we were done, we'd made a deal," says Stephens recalling the fortuitous evening.
"When I met Brent, his passion for distilling and making quality spirits was evident," says Heilmann. "He already had a lot of momentum going with the concept, sourcing equipment, and his experience and knowledge of the process."
But the real boon has been the fact that Elliott's family — specifically his uncle "Big" Roger Flowers and cousin Bubba — have been farming in Summerton for three generations. Just north of Lake Marion, you'll find Flowers Farm — 3,000-acres of squash, broccoli, peppers, watermelon, and collards, much of which goes into canned goods for Glory Foods. But it's their corn and wheat that the Charleston Distilling team has been after.
Working with Bubba on the grains, Elliott and Stephens have spent the past year testing recipes to get just the right flavors for Charleston Distilling Co.'s vodka, whiskey, bourbon, a few liqueurs, and two types of gin (of course, the junipers are not local). And since Bubba is family, if the distillers need a new variety of corn or wheat, well, it's only a matter of sitting down with the farmer on his 1890s farmhouse porch (the same one Elliott grew up playing on) and asking him to plant it.
"You can taste a difference in the corn and wheat," says Stephens. Just like terroir in wine, Stephens believes the flavors of South Carolina show through in the bottle. A sip of the vodka proves to be smooth, without any burn. The two gins display Stephens creativity, with one being a juniper-heavy edition — "for the real gin lovers," he says — and the other a lighter variety for those who prefer just a hint of the berry in their G&Ts. The company's bourbon is currently aging for two years in new white American oak barrels.
Educating the public on those flavors is part of the game plan. "We'll offer tours on the hour," says Elliott who, thanks to his Olympic-level gift of gab, will lead guests through the distillery. "When you sign up for the tour, you'll also get three half-ounce samples," adds Stephens. Eventually the team hopes to work on legislation to allow for mixed drinks at distilleries. "I love classic cocktails," says Stephens. "People aren't typically drinking just shots of vodka or gin. I'd like to show them how our products taste in a well-made drink." Given his legal background and the South Carolina distillery boom, Stephens hopes he can help liquor legislation flow as fast as recent brewery laws have changed.
Back at the farm, Elliott is sweating. "This is where it all starts," he says heaving a 50-pound bag of rye onto his shoulder. "We'll grab lunch at the diner then go see Bubba back at the house before we drive back to Charleston." It's another example of how the locally sourced trend has extended beyond food. And though Charleston Distilling Co. isn't the first farm-to-bottle operation (Striped Pig uses corn from Myers Farm in Bowman, S.C. and High Wire uses corn from three Palmetto State farms), at Charleston Distilling Co. they're keeping the go-local trend all in the family.
Charleston Distilling Co. (501 King St.) will offer tours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. On Thursday and Friday, there will be scheduled tours on the hour starting at 11 a.m. with the last tour at 3 p.m. Reservations are required for these tours. Thursday and Friday from 4-7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m.-7 p.m., there will be open tours; no reservation is needed. Tours cost $7 and include tour, tasting, and a free shot glass.