Written by Jesse Chambers
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Microbreweries have become very popular in America the last 25 years by offering consumers the cool things they can’t always find in corporate brands—local producers, a richer taste, and a wide variety of types and ingredients, as well as tours and tasting rooms.
Now small-batch distillers are catching on as well, providing those consumers with gin, vodka, and whiskey possessing some of the same qualities as craft brews. The United States had 700 craft distillers by the end of 2015, up from 588 in 2014, says the American Distilling Institute (ADI).
Micro-distilleries are multiplying in part due to an ongoing “revolution in food,” including local products, according to Bill Owens, ADI president. “Every town has a coffee roaster, small bakeries, small breweries, small wineries,” he says. “Now it’s our turn.”
More such operations are expected in Birmingham soon, which should help enrich an already vibrant local food scene, provide distillers the chance to indulge their creativity while mastering an ancient art, and give drinkers a whole new range of taste experiences.
Avondale Spirits, an offshoot of Avondale Brewing, is the brainchild of head distiller Nate Darnell, who was inspired by the creativity of Nashville’s Corsair Distillery, which makes alternative whiskies, as well as gin and vodka. “They were doing anything they wanted to do,” Darnell says. His two 50-gallon stills are housed at Wooden Goat, an Asian restaurant near the brewery.
Redmont Distilling in Lakeview was founded by Florence, Alabama, natives and Auburn University graduates Stephen Watts and Jake Hendon, who did home-brewing before teaching themselves distilling.
Contemporary consumers want “interesting and different taste profiles,” Watts says. They also crave the variety they can’t get from large distillers, according to Hendon. “Every bottle of Jack Daniel’s is a bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” Hendon says. “It’s the same every time.”
Small-batch distillers, however, “will do a one-off recipe or a single barrel made from something completely different, and you’re never going to be able to get that experience again, so it has a uniqueness,” Hendon says.
The local angle is a big part of the appeal of craft distilleries, according to Wooden Goat owner Paul Davis. “People feel involved,” he says. “They know the distiller and see (the spirits) being made.”
Distillers enjoy the freedom they have in making small batches. “We try new techniques and new ingredients,” Watts says. Not all experiments work, of course, “We tried making moonshine using Milo’s Tea. That didn’t work out too well,” Watts says, laughing. “We won’t be releasing that one.”
“It’s kind of an artistic process, art and science, where you can take any raw ingredient [and] bring those ingredients together to create a flavor profile,” Darnell says. “You’re creating something that’s unique to you.” For example, he plans to age gin in whiskey barrels.
The vodka from Avondale Spirits has a “fruity flavor from the grain that you don’t get from large-batch vodkas from the larger producers,” says restaurant general manager Annie White. “You get more of the niche flavor that changes from batch to batch.” White also like’s Darnell’s gin. “You get so much natural flavor,” she says. “It has some floral notes. It’s really complex.”
One of the items on the drink menu, the Green Chili Gimlet, is made with vodka that bartender Chris Scott infuses for about an hour with half a dozen Thai chilies. The cocktail comes in a gimlet glass with crushed ice and a lime slice. “We have done something that’s a little bit adventurous for some,” White says. “It has the green chili flavor, but it doesn’t hang around too long.”
Darnell and his Redmont Distilling counterparts are committed to using Alabama ingredients as much as possible. In fact, Darnell wants to do everything from scratch with the finest ingredients, what he calls his “grain-to-glass” business plan. He will soon be sourcing Alabama-grown malted grains, including wheat, barley, and rye, from the recently opened Old South Malt House—the only such establishment in Alabama and one of only two in the Southeast. “I want to stay as local as possible,” Darnell says.
The craft distilling market has “a lot of potential” in Alabama, according to Jimmy Sharp, head distiller of John Emerald Distilling Company in Opelika, which became the first producer in Alabama since Prohibition when it opened last year. “New laws have made it a lot better to operate a small distillery in Alabama,” says Sharp, who predicts “many more” micro-distilleries.
“There’s definitely a local market for this,” says Hendon, who believes Birmingham can support as many as four distilleries. However, the distilling business has “a tough barrier to entry,” Hendon says, referring to a blizzard of local, state, and federal permits; regulations; and paperwork a distiller must face. “It takes a long time,” he says. “It’s taken us almost two years to get to this point, and we literally just launched.”
On the plus side, the vibrant Birmingham restaurant scene can help boost sales for craft spirits, distillers say. “It helps the brewers out, and I think distilleries will fall right in behind that,” Darnell says. “Somebody’s going to go somewhere like the Wooden Goat and some of the other restaurants here that are creating a great menu and say, ‘I want a quality drink that’s in line with the food.’”
Redmont Distilling vodka is available at such Birmingham venues as Rojo, Ocean, Lou’s Pub, Black Market Bar, and Paramount, as well Alabama ABC stores. It is also sold at some bars and restaurants around the state and will be the official vodka of this summer’s Sloss Fest. Redmont plans to have its gin available this summer and a whiskey in the fall, according to Watts. They also plan to open a tasting room.
The future for micro-distillers in Alabama is bright, according to Old South Malt House owner Preston Prewett. “We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg right now,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what some of our talented artisans in this city and state will come up with.”