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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Cool little whiskey scene’: New downtown collective puts focus on unique single barrel bourbon

Southern Star Paragon Cask Strength Bourbon from Southern Distillery is available now at ILM Downtown Brown businesses, including Rebellion, Front Street Brewery, Dram and Draught, Brooklyn Arts Center and manna. (Photo by Matt Ray Photography)

WILMINGTON — Five downtown businesses are banding together to offer whiskey and bourbon lovers a one-of-a-kind taste. 

Rebellion, Front Street Brewery, Dram and Draught, Brooklyn Arts Center and manna officially launched ILM Downtown Brown, a joint effort to purchase single-barrel casks from distilleries that showcase the nuance and depth of praiseworthy brown liquors. Single barrel spirits often have distinctive features not often replicated in the distilling process.

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ILM Downtown Brown announced last week its first feature: Southern Star Paragon Cask Strength Bourbon from Southern Distillery. In August, the collective visited the 20-acre farm and distillery in Statesville, North Carolina, to sample and select its first barrel. By September, Paragon was recognized at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition for best in class and best overall out of 650 spirits.

“That’s huge,” Front Street Brewery’s Ellie Craig said. 

It’s no small feat for a North Carolina distillery to win, as many don’t consider the Tar Heel State reigning supreme over Kentucky’s bourbon-making prowess.

On Oct. 5, all five establishments in ILM Downtown Brown began selling full pours of Southern Star’s Paragon Cask Strength for $15. The point is to focus on brands not easily accessible via the state-controlled ABC system.

“We thought, instead of just one of us advocating to get a certain brand or a special case of bourbon, why wouldn’t we work together and work with the distilleries,” Craig said. 

ILM Downtown Brown shares the cost of a single barrel — which can be $8,000 and up depending on the bourbon, its age and brand. The barrel is still coded through the state’s systems, so the coalition is not sidestepping the ABC.

“A lot of these larger companies, they just don’t send as much product here because of the rules of the system,” Rebellion owner Brian Westlye said. 

It results in supply issues, especially with rare liquors — sometimes only a few bottles of select brands are available at a time.

ABC weighs its 100 boards by population. New Hanover County is one of the larger ones, but areas like Raleigh and Charlotte often get more products based on how many people it serves in its borders. 

Though a lottery tries to even the playing field for harder-to-come-by offerings, Westlye said it can be disheartening for a whiskey bar that doesn’t get selected. Rebellion has more than 350 varieties of whiskeys and bourbons in stock, while Front Street Brewery has a selection over 400 deep.

The Southern Star Paragon Cask Strength Single Barrel is 113 proof, with a flavor profile of caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and hints of char from the oak barrel, according to Craig.

“You would think it would be astringent and burn the pallet, but it is incredibly smooth,” she said.  

A wheated bourbon fan, Westlye was impressed by Paragon’s Cask Strength drinkability considering how young it is. Bourbon mash is typically 51% corn and a mixture of barley and rye; wheated bourbon swaps out the rye grain. Paragon’s Cask Strength was bottled after four years, whereas, typically, wheated bourbon, like Makers Mark, is bottled after five or six.

“It definitely drinks like an older bourbon,” Westlye said, adding the Statesville distillery had received tutelage from Maker’s Mark as well.

The barrel ILM Downtown Brown purchased breaks down to five cases for each establishment. — approximately 185 to 250 bottles. The variance comes in the urban aging process. 

“Sometimes a lot of that spirit evaporates — what they call the ‘angel’s share,’” Craig said.

She expects the stock to last at Front Street through winter at least. The brewery is also utilizing the barrel it purchased, as well as an empty barrel gifted to them, to age Front Street’s Dram Tree Scottish Ale. It will be ready by December or January, for distribution in cans and on tap at Front Street and the coalition’s businesses.

Craig said cross promotion is part of the joint effort. 

“It’s really collaboration over competition — a high tide rises, all ships sort of a deal,” she said.

Growing the collective is also in the cards, Westlye said. It’s open to downtown whiskey-centric businesses, from Brooklyn Arts District on Fourth Street to downtown on Front. There isn’t a formal membership — no dues, no bylaws. 

“It started as conversation among friends — this isn’t us versus them,” Westlye said. He wants to keep ILM Downtown Brown community-driven.

That also includes highlighting creations from friends in the industry. Last week at End of Days’ Survivor’s Cut Rye Whiskey release, Westlye and Jay Tatum of Brooklyn Arts Center mentioned the initiative to EOD owners Shane Faulkner and Oliver Earney. It didn’t take long before ILM Downtown Brown’s next single barrel was decided upon: Survivor’s Cut — either a single barrel rye whiskey or bourbon. Details are still being hashed out. 

“We want to highlight local and regional if we can,” Westlye said. “Single barrels can taste different from each other, which is why this program is so neat. But our main thing, really, is letting people know Wilmington does have a cool little whiskey scene.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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