Once you have seen something being made, and you've gotten up really close with what the process is, you will never drink it the same way again," Kathleen Purvis says, speaking about her book, Distilling the South: A Guide to Southern Craft Liquors (UNC Press), which came out in May.
Purvis, food editor at the Charlotte Observer, has covered food and drink in her home state of North Carolina since 1989, before any "craft" food or drink was a thing. But in the last decade, she's seen a pronounced shift in craft spirits across the South, with a surge of independent, local distillers entering the market. It's why she devoted a book to celebrating them, plotting significant distilleries from eleven states across six regional "liquor trails." Three Triangle craft distilleries are highlighted on North Carolina's dedicated trail, including gin- and headline-maker Durham Distillery.
Purvis defines "craft distillery" as one that has a small output and a hands-on operation, and one that is a creative expression of a small group of owners without corporate ownership. And craft liquors, like any locally crafted food or drink, are reflective of a place and a time. There's never been a deeper local well of craft liquor to enjoy, but it hasn't always been this way.
North Carolina has a complicated past with booze—as Purvis writes, "Much of North Carolina's attitude and history was shaped by a strong religious culture on the one hand and a proud, defiant culture of moonshining on the other."
As a result, N.C. has some of the most stringent liquor laws in the country, and the state regulates most of its alcohol sales through the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) store system. Purvis cites grassroots movements such as 2005's Pop the Cap, led by Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Durham's Fullsteam Brewery, for helping reshape liquor regulations by allowing the sale of beers with up to 15 percent alcohol by volume.
"When that first happened, we thought we were going to see an increase in imports [...] Nobody anticipated what was going to happen with craft beer," Purvis says. "But as the counties and municipalities started seeing that there was huge demand and a lot of very successful business to be done with this, you see the state realizing, 'wait a sec, if we make it easier for people to create these new businesses, this is going to benefit everybody.'"
Along with increased interest and revenue potential, two other factors contributed to the rise in N.C. craft distilling, which began around 2010. First, the local-food movement—a locally produced food system and local-food conscious consumers—allowed distillers to work directly with local agriculture, such as Scott Maitland of Chapel Hill's Top of the Hill Distillery (TOPO).
"He's passionate about keeping our money in North Carolina; he calls it 'keeping our money sticky,'" Purvis says. "He saw distilling as a way to support N.C. agriculture while keeping what's being made from the things we grow here in N.C., [so] we keep the money, and we get to use it in our economy."
Except for its spiced rum, all of TOPO's spirits are made using locally sourced soft red winter wheat, including the first whiskey made with 100 percent N.C.-grown wheat.
The progress also paved the way for niche businesses such as Durham's The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits, which makes krupnikas, a Lithuanian spiced-honey liqueur. Owner Rim Vilgalys jokes that his is a "fake distillery," though it's common practice for distilleries to buy bulk spirits and re-release it under their own name.
The other factor that led to the craft distilling boom is the 2008 recession.
"I don't want to sound flip—the economic reset was a horrible thing for many people—but what came out of it over and over again in food was, people who couldn't get a job doing something else, [people who] had a buyout, or [people who had] the opportunity to change their lives said, 'I want to spend my life making something,'" Purvis says. "Since 2008 we've seen this explosion of people making things that are an expression of themselves and the place they live."
Durham Distillery is a perfect example. During the recession, Melissa Katrincic, a former marketing executive, was faced with a buyout and decided to take it. On a road trip driving back to Durham, Katrincic and her husband Lee, a pharmaceutical chemist by trade, brainstormed ideas for a new venture that would marry Melissa's business savvy with Lee's chemistry knowledge.
Distillation is a chemical process, requiring careful calibration of temperature and timing to convert liquid to vapor and back to liquid again. And the pair have long been gin fanatics, especially Melissa, who got a taste for it early on when her grandfather let her eat his martini olives. Melissa saw an opportunity to apply Lee's science knowledge to revolutionize the distillation process in an underrepresented category of Southern-distilled spirits.
"When you think about gins, the American South is a little bit of a different animal in terms of their residents and desire to have gin as part of their liquor cabinet," Melissa says. "There's a lot [who] still think of vodka and gin in exclusively different categories. What we're trying to do is really elevate what gin is. Gin is just naturally flavored vodka. The only thing that makes a gin, a gin, versus a vodka, is the juniper berry."
Melissa's grandmother, who would often tell her "not to throw a conniption" when she misbehaved, inspired the name of their small-batch gins. Since 2013, they've produced Conniption American Dry and Conniption Navy Strength out of their Central Park facility to local and national acclaim.
To keep up with demand, Durham Distillery recently expanded its production space, but Gertrude, a two-hundred-thirty-liter, custom-designed German copper pot still, remains the central fixture and star of the distillery's weekend tours.
Once Gertrude distills corn ethanol into gin, it’s then blended with botanicals such as Albanian and Bulgarian juniper, plus nine others. More delicate botanicals are individually distilled using a lab-like piece of equipment called a Rotovap—because they aren't heated, their flavors and freshness are better preserved.
You may think you don't like gin—Melissa concedes that many taste "like licking a pine tree"—but Conniption American Dry is a gin for gin-haters.
Sure, the modern techniques and science-y equipment are cool, but tasting is what really changed my mind. Post-tour, we gathered in Durham Distillery's tasting room where the bar is lined with lab-grade bottles of botanicals. But it's not just the power of suggestion, in addition to juniper I also detected pronounced notes of coriander and cardamom, and a lilting back note of honeysuckle. It's also incredibly smooth, making it versatile for cocktails. Kingfisher, a forthcoming Durham craft cocktail bar, is featuring Durham Distillery's gins at a pop-up at The Durham's bar on September 12.
"This area is so ripe to be able to enjoy more gin cocktails. It's the perfect climate for gin; gin doesn't necessarily have that seasonality to it that whiskeys do. Gin is really evergreen," Melissa says. "For me, that's the fun thing too about being a gin distiller in the American South. Because no one's taken a foothold and said, we're the gin of the South."
Durham Distillery is steadily earning that reputation stateside, winning awards for both its Conniption American Dry, considered a contemporary style, and Conniption Navy Strength, a 114-proof gin. In 2017, it was named a top three distillery in the country by USA Today (this year's poll hasn't yet concluded).
The Katrincics have also made international headlines. This past May, Lee and Melissa were inducted into the prestigious London-based Gin Guild, just the fourth and fifth Americans to get sworn in (while holding a juniper berry branch, naturally).
And the brand is growing. Durham Distillery is recreating a sweetened gin called Old Tom and will soon release a barrel-rested gin. It also produces Damn Fine Liqueurs, crafted with local ingredients from Slingshot Coffee Company and Videri Chocolate Factory.
Durham Distillery also recently launched a line of canned cocktails, a gin and tonic made with Conniption American Dry and a cucumber vodka soda made with its Cold Distilled Cucumber Vodka. You can't knock the convenience, but we'd rather mix up a G&T and really let the Conniption American Dry's flavors shine, or try our hand at Melissa's French 75 in the Garden, a riff on the classic gin-champagne cocktail (get the recipe exclusively at indyweek.com).
It's the perfect late summer tipple, and a fine way to toast North Carolina's spirited future.
Correction: This piece originally misstated the percentage by which Pop the Cap raised North Carolina's legal ABV for beer, and one aspect of the distillation process at Durham Distillery has been clarified.