Could craft distilling be coming to Wilmington?

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Wilmington has a dozen craft breweries. Is the time right for a craft distillery?

WILMINGTON – Has Wilmington’s craft brewery explosion set the stage for the region’s first local distillery? That was one of the questions debated at Friday’s Local Food Conference, the annual event held by Feast Down East.

The conference brought together leaders from farming, restaurants and public policy to discuss the cutting-edge issues of food and drink in the Cape Fear Area. In a panel on the “Barn to Bottle” movement – which brings local ingredients to local brewers and distillers – there was standing room only and the question of a distillery in the Cape Fear area was on people’s minds.

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Left to right: Sebastian Wolfrum, Kevin Kozak and Mark Blevins.

Moderator Mark Blevins, county extension director of the Brunswick County Cooperative, said craft brewing and distilling was an ideal way for local farmers to add value at a time when crop prices are falling against inexpensive imports.

“Commodity prices are going down,” Blevins said. “So what can we do? Brewing and distilling are ways to add value to fruit like grapes and apples, and especially to specialty crops like barley.”

Sebastian Wolfrun, owner and maltster at Epiphany Craft Malt House, buys local barley and prepares it for use by North Carolina breweries. His selection process is far more rigorous than barley for other food use, and he pays a premium. For farmers producing high quality barley, this is a way to get more return on investment.

Blevins said that while the state has far more breweries than distilleries, the craft spirits business is growing, and serves as a good example of how food systems served both producers and consumers.

“Farmers who are producing high-quality crops, can really benefit from this,” he said. “And foodies can get what they want too – they get to find and devour local potent potables.”

Blevins pointed to TOPO and Covington as examples of North Carolina distilleries that embody the ‘barn to bottle’ philosophy, a spirited version of the now ubiquitous ‘farm to table’ ethos.

Despite the popularity of craft spirits, there are some serious barriers to bringing a distillery to the Cape Fear Area. They include the state’s notoriously strict Alcohol Beverage Control commission.

After Prohibition, North Carolina did not have a distillery until 2005 and, unlike many other states, distilleries are not permitted to sell their own alcohol – at a bar or by the bottle on premise. The state’s only concession to distilleries so far has been a law in 2015, allowing customers to buy one bottle per year.

Kevin Kozak, brewmaster at Front Street Brewery, said, “It’s part of the local idea. You can come in and meet our brewers and see the process. Then, you can go to the bar and buy a pint of ESB. We make a nice profit from that. Everyone has a good time, so it works. But if we took the plunge and started distilling, you couldn’t sit at the bar and buy a cocktail. We essentially would have to ship our liquor to Raleigh and then buy it back from them and sell it.”

Kozak added, “Don’t get me wrong. We’d love to do it. But it’s much harder for us to make economic sense out of that.”

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Wolfrum spoke about the 10,000-year history of malted beverages. “Historically, distilling spirits came millennia after beer and Meade. I think it will catch up more quickly here.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Another barrier, perhaps less obvious, is the culture of moonshine. Without naming names, Wolfrum said he was aware of underground distilleries in the area.

“There are these places, I’ve heard of,” Wolfrum said. “A barber shop, with containers under the counter. And you have to say a word, obviously you can’t ask for whiskey, so there’s some other word. But here’s the thing, they’re making quite good product. And it’s for sale in a place where people want it. So, there’s a system – quite an old system, really – in place already.”

Lisa Jeffries, founder of the Raleighwood Media Group, said that despite these barriers, North Carolina is seeing rapid growth in distilleries, from its first in 2005 to over 40 today. Jefferies, who co-founded the Raleigh Food and Wine Festival in 2015, suggested that the success of the Pop the Cap – the movement that lifted the state’s 6 percent ABV limit of brewing in 2005 – had set the stage for craft distilling.

“It’s coming,” said Jeffries. “And it’ll come from the craft brewing world.”

Jeffries said, at the most basic level, every brewery is already on its way to distilling spirits.

“They produce wort,” Jeffries said, referring to sweet liquid extracted from malted barley that is the basis of both beer and spirits. “Once you have that, you have to decide, do I want to just sell this at the bar or go further to make spirits.”

Breweries have other advantages, not least of which is that they are already an up-and-running business. “Breweries don’t have to face the same start-up challenges,” Jeffries. “Not only do they have some of the equipment, but they have a brand, business relationships and a customer base.”

Jeffries mentioned Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, which opened in 1994 and made the leap in 2012 to distilling locally sourced organic spirits. Two years later, Mother Earth Brewing also expanded their brewing operation to include whiskey, gin and rum in Kinston (also home to Vivian Howard’s Chef & the Farmer, a restaurant that helped cement the ‘farm to table’ movement).

Both of these breweries, as Jeffries pointed out, started distilling before the ABC regulations were relaxed.

So, what’s stopping a distillery from opening in the Cape Fear region?

“Nothing,” said Blevins. “I think it would be great if someone wanted to distill here, legally. We’ve got everything we need.”