ATLANTA -- “It won’t be too long until there’s a coffee roaster, brew pub, distillery and maybe a cacao artisan in every town,” said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute.
That prediction is about to come true for metro Atlanta. The region has Batdorf & Bronson roasting coffee, several microbreweries and Cacao Atlanta crafting bean-to-bar chocolate. Soon, it will have two microdistilleries.
Craft distilleries, much like craft breweries, are on the rise. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are about 240 small distilleries in the United States and Canada. By 2015, estimates say the number will likely jump to 400 to 450.
In Georgia, the number has more than doubled in a year. There are five operating craft producers with three more in the works.
Like cheese makers or bread bakers, craft spirit makers are artisan producers. Kent Cost, the president of 13th Colony Distillery in Americus, calls it “every bit as much an art as it is science.” Erik Vonk of Richland Distilling Co. near Columbus likens it to playing a musical instrument and explains that small-batch production allows crafters to “develop taste and aroma profiles more refined.”
Georgia’s craft distilleries buy local ingredients to distill liquors. Vonk grows sugar cane for rum. Others, such as Carlos Lovell of Ivy Mountain Distillery, are using local spring water or sprouting and grinding their own corn.
They pay homage to Georgia’s tradition of moonshining.
Several of Georgia’s legal microdistilleries trace their roots to forbidden backwoods production. Eighty-five-year-old Lovell works from a recipe he learned as a child at his daddy’s hip. Cheryl Wood of Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, who says she comes from “generations and generations of moonshiners,” uses a 150-year-old family formula.
Casey Teague, a Georgia native and manager at Mac McGee’s Irish Pub in Decatur, believes white lightning helped sustain the economy during its heyday.
“Moonshine played a huge part in our history,” he said. “After the Civil War and Prohibition, it saved a lot of families. It put money in pockets and food on the table, especially in the South.” Georgia’s microdistilleries make moonshine along with rum, vodka and gin.
The small businesses provide a boost to the local economy. Owens, the American Distilling Institute’s president, emphasizes the benefit of increased tourism generated by these distilleries, which can “lead the revival of a town.”
While these craft distilleries are good for the consumer and for local and state economies, their success hinges upon modifying what Vonk calls “an antiquated legal and regulatory environment surrounding making and selling spirits that dates back to Prohibition years.” Recent legislation makes it legal for distilleries to offer the public samplings of half an ounce per person, per day.
But distribution laws prohibiting onsite sales of spirits is a major obstacle, one being addressed by Georgia Distilling Co. and Jim Harris of the soon-to-open Moonrise Distillery.
“We are trying to get the same legislation passed for distilleries as wineries,” Harris said. “The Georgia Farm Winery Act permits wineries to have a tasting room and have limited onsite sales.” Without onsite sales, Harris says, “it will be the downfall of most Georgia distilleries. … We won’t be able to make it.” In addition to legislative challenges, craft distilleries, like any artisan producer of foods, must educate consumers on the value of handmade, locally sourced products.
“If a person has been drinking Jack Daniel’s all their life, it may take a lot to persuade them,” said Carlene Holder of Ivy Mountain Distillery. “We’ll do it. One taste and they are convinced.”