Yes, it was a dream assignment.
To write “Distilling the South: A Guide to Southern Craft Liquors and the People Who Make Them,” (UNC Press, 2018), I hit the road in 2016 to spend 14 months visiting more than 50 distilleries across 11 Southern states.
A big chunk of my research took me all over North Carolina, from Asheville to Kinston and from Mount Airy to Charlotte, visiting small, start-up distilleries.
Here are 6 of the coolest things I learned:
1. The best ride at a distillery: At Broadslab Distilling in Benson, about 30 miles south of Raleigh, owner Jeremy Norris hitches a wagon to a tractor and tows you through the fields of corn he uses to make his whiskey.
2. The strangest bragging rights: Several counties vie to be “the moonshine capital of North Carolina,” including Wilkes County, Johnston County and Wilson County. They cite different statistics, from arrest numbers to gallons of illegal liquor seized. If you’re into the illegal moonshine mystique, Call Family Distillers in Wilkesboro has two bootlegging cars that are beauties, including a baby-blue 1961 Chrysler New Yorker.
3. Moonshine is a fighting word: Even though a lot of places now make legal moonshine, it really isn’t moonshine. It’s unaged corn whiskey. Moonshine is a term for any alcohol made without a license (and aficionados love to argue over using the term correctly). If you want to taste a well-made moonshine, head for Copper Barrel Distilling in North Wilkesboro, where George Smith and his partner Buck Nance are making a version that’s smoother than most.
4. The easiest way to find N.C.-made spirits: Every ABC store is required to have a display for N.C.-made liquors, although the selection varies widely by store. You should still visit a distillery if you get the chance, though: You’ll meet passionate people, learn a lot about the things you put in your glass and you can buy up to five bottles a year directly from the distillery under new state rules.
5. Beer and liquor, quicker: “Brewstilleries,” which make both liquor and beer, are starting to pop up. Mother Earth in Kinston is both a brewery and a distillery (the still has to be in a separate room). In Asheville, Highland Brewing and Asheville Distilling Co., the makers of Troy & Sons whiskeys, are in the same building. And Charlotte’s Unknown Brewing is adding a distillery.
6. The best spirits to take on vacation: If you’re headed to the mountains, pick up Carolina Distillery’s excellent Carriage House apple brandy, made in Lenoir. It tastes like a crisp fall day. If you’re headed to the beach, take the coconut rum from Muddy River Distillery in Belmont. It’s made from fresh coconuts, so it doesn’t smell like suntan lotion. Mixed with pineapple juice and ice, it makes a dandy umbrella drink.