SURF CITY — Since 2019, Andy and Amy Szwejbka have been mulling over a business plan to open a distillery in Surf City.
By September 2023, the idea will set sail as Hidden Ships launches in Triton Village, behind the Salty Turtle brewery.
READ MORE: ‘Hole in the wall’ restaurant and bar gets cozy at 2nd and Princess downtown
The recent development of buildings along Roland Avenue and Highway 50, leading into Surf City, will bring two dozen or more new businesses to the area, including restaurants, a wine shop, boutiques and Pender County’s first distillery.
It’s a concept the Szwejbkas have had fun with yet haven’t taken lightly. While rearing four kids, they decided to live in an RV for a year after Andy retired from the Marine Corps in 2021. They hit every major distillery, especially along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Upon returning home to Surf City, they signed up for online classes to learn the ins and outs of distilling. Andy went through a graduate program at University of Louisville to receive his distilled spirits business certificate. Both attended Moonshine University — yes, “a real thing” Amy assured, which offers technical training and business management education for start-ups and professionals alike.
“It’s actually extremely prestigious in that world,” she said. “Opening a distillery is a big financial commitment, so that network — everything that they taught us — has been just phenomenal. Everybody in that industry is connected right there, and they’re willing to give you information or hook you up with anything that you might need.”
Andy, who has been bartending at the Salty Turtle during retirement, has always had a love for pre-Prohibition cocktails — Sazarac, Gin Rickey, old fashioned, sidecar. The distillery will be a production facility, tasting room and bar, focused on the old-school drinks.
“I just believe that, if we’ve been making these cocktails for over 100 years, there’s a reason for it: because they’re good,” he said.
Hidden Ships will start out producing gin, white rum, and vodka, but source out tequila and bourbon. However, Hidden Ships will be making its own bourbon, laying down the first barrel as soon as permitting is approved, but that takes years before the first batch can come to market.
In the meantime, Andy said they will purchase barrels from Southern Distilling in Statesville. He plans to do an eight-week secondary aging on the Southern product, so Hidden Ships customers are still receiving a unique flavor not otherwise offered.
“We’re going to test it on maybe five or six different woods,” he said, such as a sherry, port, French oak and oak barrel.
They’ll also make a bourbon cream with it, infused with their own mix of spices and flavorings, such as cinnamon and vanilla, and add in dairy. Bourbon cream is a trend that has taken off in the last few years, with many respected distilleries, such as Buffalo Trace, launching brands for customers to sip over ice, put in coffee or use to make root beer floats.
“From a business perspective, it makes our bourbon go further as well,” Andy said.
The gin, however, is what most excites him. Aside from being a favorite sipper, it also is growing in the market. According to Allied Market Research, gin sales are suspected to reach $20.17 billion by 2028; by comparison it was $14.83 billion in 2022.
A traditionalist who prefers the piney juniper flavor, Andy is undecided how to approach the botanicals recipe for Hidden Ships. Lately, the trend has been to create more floral bouquets, such as adding pea flower or grape flower, as well as citrusy notes of lemon and honey. The Szwejbkas will play around with small batches.
“Stylistically, we may do something fun with the dogwood flower for Carolina flair,” he said. “It has to be 51% juniper, but you know what we do with that other 49%, I think we can get pretty creative and fun and make sure that it tastes great.”
The couple also contracted the help of Steve Tomori, who was involved in the launch of Wilmington’s End of Days in 2019. Tomori runs a distillery consulting business now.
Hidden Ships will be producing bottles to be sold via the North Carolina ABC Commission as well, with plans to submit for permitting by July.
The 2,700-square-foot distillery will have a 20-foot bar as its centerpiece, with a speakeasy lounge area, complete with leather sofas and fireplaces between the windows. Behind the bar is a 19-foot window to look into the distillery, outfitted with two stills, a 50-gallon pot hybrid still and a 500-gallon cooker.
There will be indoor and outdoor seating for up to 70 people, with the patio space adding 400 or more square feet.
The couple started a Kickstarter campaign with a $25,000 goal, which will ensure another piece of equipment comes to the operation: a chiller. Andy said it could double Hidden Ships’ production capacity; however, if the goal isn’t met, it won’t stop the distillery from opening.
“It is a ‘nice to have,’ not a ‘must have,’” Andy clarified.
The crowdsourcing campaign serves also as a way to garner more community support and build awareness for the brand. Almost halfway to the goal, campaign donation perks include branded merchandise, a name on its wall-of-fame plaque to be installed in the distillery, and for generous donors, their own barrel offered in 3 liters and up to 53 gallons.
Since relocating to Surf City in 2011 — Andy was stationed at Camp LeJeune — the Szwejbkas have immersed themselves into the tight-knit community. Once they announced they were moving forward with the distillery, they said excitement escalated.
“All the little businesses are just so supportive of each other,” Amy said. “So it’s been a really cool experience. We have local eateries saying they will send people to us and food trucks have reached out.”
The name Hidden Ships is even derived from local lore. In the 17th century, Topsail Beach was a hotbed for pirates. They used Topsail to hide from authorities and approaching merchant vessels along the barrier islands.
The distillery will feature handcrafted mocktails, too, for nonalcoholic drinkers. There will be tasting tours offered, live music planned, and classes for those interested in learning more about craft cocktails.
“I want to teach a mixology class,” Andy said. He will be the master distiller, while Amy will focus on branding and marketing.
“Amy’s really interested in putting together some pairing classes with food and doing other sensory trainings,” he added. “Actually Moonshine University was awesome for that — teaching you how to smell and taste.”
The distillery will operate from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and stay open later on Friday and Saturday. It will open Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Sundays are important to us because the ABC stores choose to close on Sunday,” he said. “But we can still sell our bottles, so it will be the only place in Pender County to get a bottle.”
Tips or comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe now and then sign up for our morning newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.