CAROLINA BEACH — Lisa Lowery was 45 when she decided to ditch her corporate job and follow a career of passion: distilling. Turns out, it was a good call.
Last summer, Lowery received a message from Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners: Master Distiller,” which wanted her to audition for the show.
“I’m not sure how they found me,” Lowery wrote to Port City Daily Thursday, “but it was probably via social media.”
Fast forward to 2021 — and getting cast ahead of 10,000 other auditioners — and the episode “Gin Craze” is now streaming, and pits Lowery against a chef from Utah and a water worker out of West Virginia. Lowery was able to meet her competitors ahead of the show and found out the spirit they would be creating over three rounds would be gin.
“Fortunately, I have been making gin for a few years, so I knew what I had to do,” she explained.
Lowery said, upon being cast, she purchased a pot still from Portugal to begin running through recipes with various combinations of herbs, spices, fruits and other fragrant ingredients.
In the episode, the distillers are tasked with three challenges: making dry London gin, a modern gin, and a signature recipe, with competitors bringing their own ingredients in the last challenge.
The competition was filmed at Sugarlands Distilling in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the dog days of August last year. Lowery said they were competing in an un-air-conditioned metal facility in the middle of Covid-19.
“That alone was quite a challenge,” she wrote. “But talk about instant family! Our filming days were long (and hot) but very satisfying.”
(It’s not lost on viewers that competitors in a modern-day pandemic are making a juice most well-known for an ingredient, juniper, that was put in plague doctor’s masks in the 1600s.)
The competitors start with a neutral base, most kin to vodka, to churn out gin in a 20-gallon still. Lowery explained she chose high juniper flavors and simple spices, like coriander, peppercorns, orris root and ginger, for the first challenge of making dry London gin.
The second, a modern gin challenge, had her mixing jalapeño, muscadine grapes, marigolds, honey and botanicals.
One of the judges commented that Lowery’s gin “spread out like a damn bouquet.” They all praised her “floral work” in the distilling process, which in round three consisted of lavender, lemon balm, ginger, elderberry, ginseng and botanicals.
In the show, viewers see Lowery working through her Mason jars of herbs, spices and seeds like an apothecarist. She tinkers with the distilling equipment, and at one point in challenge number two decides mid-still she isn’t satisfied with the flavor. So Lowery pulls out the botanical bag to adjust its profile, in effect flooring the competitors and judges alike.
The end result received high-praise for its complexity.
“It’s about tasting the product for the right cuts, the smell of quality distillate, the sound the still makes as it goes through each phase, the sight of the proper distillate flow. It’s like working from the heart to bring a quality product to the table,” Lowery described.
Home is where the ‘grappa’ is
It was in Lowery’s aunt and uncle’s home in Michigan, when she was in her teens and 20s, that her fondness for distilling began. She said the family loved making grappa — a grape-based Italian brandy.
“They were producing wine, distilling grappa and brandies made from grapes they purchased from a little Italian man out of downtown Detroit,” she remembered. “We spent many nights in that basement talking about and sampling their spirits.”
Lowery purchased her own 1-gallon pot still and practiced a few runs of brandy made of wine and fermented fruits. “I can’t say my first batches were good but I never gave up,” she explained. “Typically, you’d put it in a used barrel and let it age and mellow, but I didn’t have barrels back then.”
She continued studying her hobby, sponging up information from Michigan State University professor Kris Berglund, as well as getting real-life experience. She worked at a brewery and experimental distillery in Michigan in the ‘90s.
Though Lowery’s passion for the craft was blossoming early in life, she was sidetracked by a different career path when she accepted work for John Deere Sportswear in international sales. The move also brought her to the East Coast — specifically, to her home in Carolina Beach.
She worked at John Deer for a decade before she decided to “retire” from the corporate world and take the leap into the distillate profession. “I decided to make a list of all the distilleries in NC to contact, knowing one of them would hire me as an apprentice,” Lowery explained.
She reached out to Michael Sinclair and Jonathan Blitz at Mystic Farm & Distillery in Durham, who were accepting volunteers for their bottling crew. “So I signed up,” Lowery noted. “[I] told them my goals, and they told me to come back on Tuesday to work with them and see if I liked it. I did, and stayed.”
For the last three years at Mystic, Lowery finessed her knowledge and crafting experience for bourbon, gin, rum, vodka and brandy. “This art is not something you can pull out of a box and start making quality spirits with,” she said. She got first-hand lessons in distillery operations overall, from the ins and outs of legalities to inventory control, down to understanding how to maintain equipment.
“I also managed the front of the house and made it a viable retail operation,” she said.
Her favorite spirits to make are bourbon and gin. She adores the versatility of gin — which Lowery called “high-proof (180-190) vodka” with added botanicals: “There are so many botanical combinations that you can use with gin, all producing unique flavor profiles. It’s not the piney liquor from your grandpa’s liquor cabinet, as gin is so much more refined these days.”
Yet, bourbon also fascinates her to no end.
“You can make bourbon anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky,” she informed, “and I think our North Carolina terroir produces some of the finest tasting bourbon around. Currently, I have about 300 bourbon barrels resting in the barrel house at Mystic in Durham.”
Yet, over the last few months, Lowery hasn’t been so active on the distillery floor. She has been doing administrative work for Mystic from her home on Carolina Beach since she found out she had breast cancer over the last year. After undergoing a double mastectomy in December, Lowery said she is in the final stretch of healing from February’s reconstructive surgery
“So this is the last piece of recovery and kicking cancer’s ass,” she said. “The unfortunate part is we’ve brought on new staff to do my distillery job, so I’m a free agent so-to-say.”
As one of the few female distillers in the nation, Lowery said she has used her recovery time to finalize a new business plan. She aims to open her own distillery and is eyeing a spot west of Charlotte — “unless an investor comes along and wants me to open a distillery here,” she said.
“I hope to explore all the fruits and botanicals that North Carolina and the Appalachian area has to offer in the form of brandies and gins,” Lowery said. “I believe there are so many untapped flavors that are to come out of native and heirloom plants and fruits . . . the best way to learn is to just jump in and do it.”
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