Business Spotlight: Behind the Scenes at Southern Distilling Company
BY HALEY JONES
Statesville is said to have been known as the "Liquor Capital of the World" in the days before Prohibition.
Now, with the opening of Southern Distilling Company, the city has a shot at reclaiming its distillery fame.
Southern Distilling Company owners Pete and Vienna Barger have been working tirelessly for almost four and a half years to prepare the company for its grand opening, set for this summer.
“We chose to open our business to Statesville because it’s home and because all of the heritage and history of distilling. It was a perfect fit,” Vienna Barger said.
The 25,000-square-foot building, located on 20 acres of farmland, houses the equipment for making bourbon, rye whiskey, brandies and more through the distillery’s “double barrel” spirit safe system, before being bottled by hand on site.
On Tuesday, a group of local civic and business leaders toured the facility. They were clearly impressed.
“I have enjoyed watching the progress of the distillery from the ground up. It’s going to be a magnificent addition to the landscape of Statesville. I’m really exciting about them producing [their products here] and moving forward,” Mayor Costi Kutteh said afterward.
Kutteh was joined on the tour by Chamber of Commerce President David Bradley; Downtown Statesville Development Corporation Executive Director Marin Tomlin; attorney Pressley Mattox, Mitchell Community College Coordinator of Work-Based Learning Kelly Pardue, and other leaders.
“We’re excited to be a part of the community,” Barger said. “Statesville has been expanding and creating new opportunity for progress and growth. We’re excited to be a part of that growth and to be an asset to the community. We want to show the world beyond Statesville that this city is the place to do business.”
No commercial products are available at this time. The company’s brand, Southern Star, is set to be in ABC stores starting in June.
By the time the distillery hosts its grand opening, a series of high rye bourbon whiskeys, a bourbon cream liquor and flavored whiskeys will be available. There are future plans for a vodka, as well as a gin that builds on the herbarium and botanical heritage in Statesville, (known as the Wallace Brothers Botanical Company in the 1950s). The distillery will also launch an apple brandy in the fall as an ode to the apple orchards in the region, and a rye whiskey in October.
The distillery also has plans to produce a unique wheated bourbon, which is comparable to Maker’s Mark. It will be aged for four years.
“This process is similar to what Statesville was built on,” explained Terri Jo Ireland, an administrative executive at Southern Distilling Company. “That refining and blending of the town is what we’re trying to bring that heritage back home.”
The distillery will buy rye from local farmers to use in its product. In a two-fold effort, Southern Distilling Company will also be donating their “spent grain” (grain after the fermentation process) to a local beef cattle farmer, which will provide a high protein feed for the cattle.
The process begins with grain silos, located outside the facility. From there, the grain moves into the milling room, where it is moved into a roller mill, which crushes the material into a fine consistency. The crushed product (called mash) then goes into a giant cooker. Each cooked batch of mash is then transferred into a fermentation tank. One of the four fermentation tanks will serve as a beer well and come into play later in the process. The cooked mash will ferment for at least three days with carbon dioxide, alcohol and yeast.
After three days, the fermented mash will be pumped into the beer well. The beer well will have an agitator to keep the solution absolute. The mixture will then be fed into a distill column, hosting 16 sieve plates in the column, each serving as a different part of the distillation cycle.
Southern Distilling Company houses the tallest stainless steel and copper column still system in North Carolina, reaching a height of 40 feet tall.
From there, the alcohol will be pumped into the processing room, where water will be added and it will be barreled.
At this point in time, the perceived bourbon is clear. Because alcohol is a solvent, it gets its flavor and pigment from the wood it’s aged in. The more time it spends in a barrel, the darker the color.
Southern Distilling Company uses charred American Oak barrels for aging its alcohol, an absolute for bourbon aging.
The tour lasts around 40 minutes, exploring the process of how the bourbon is made. The tour concludes with a tasting. Each visitor can try 1.5 ounces, per day. Under state law, once products are available, individuals are allowed to purchase one bottle per year from the distillery.
The Southern Distilling Company will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday with tours starting at the top of the hour; the first tour at 11 a.m. and the last at 5 p.m. On Sunday, the distillery will operate from noon to 5 p.m. with tours from noon to 4 p.m.
Advanced reservations are preferred for tours.
A large conference room and lounge area are available for business conferences, birthday parties, weddings and receptions.
The distillery is also looking to start more specialized tours, such as a specified process tour or a spirit history of Statesville tour. To make reservations for a tour or event, contact the distillery.
STATESVILLE’S SPIRIT HISTORY
The spirituous history of Statesville begins with the construction of Fort Dobbs in the 1750s. One of the first settlers of Statesville was a man named Fergus Sloan, an Irish man, who brought a copper and tin still from his homeland. Because of this, it is rumored that the very first still of that kind was brought from Ireland and placed here in Statesville. This man is the very same who, almost 40 years later, sold around 70 acres to town commissioners to create the city of Statesville.
The Temperance Movement began in North Carolina in 1822. A local vote prohibited selling liquor in Statesville in 1872.
In 1881, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized a vote on statewide Prohibition law, only to be crushed by a landslide vote in opposition. That same year, W.M. Cooper started a wholesale liquor manufacturing in Statesville.
Statesville was nicknamed the “liquor capital of the world” in the 1880s, due to the mass volumes of whiskey shipped through the Atlantic, Tennessee and Western and Ohio Railroads. Whiskey was also shipped via the Western Railroad. This is mainly because the city was the last stop before the trains headed west. Because of this, Statesville was a great home base to ship liquor.
Shortly afterwards, P.B. Key, the grandnephew of Francis Scott Key (who wrote the Star Spangled Banner), moved to Statesville to manufacture whiskey and tobacco.
In 1884, saloons opened in Statesville, and a handful of bars.
In 1902, the N.C. Anti-Saloon League was established; the Watts Act was established, and prohibited the manufacture and sale of spirituous liquors, making Statesville a “dry” city.
Distilleries were outlawed in North Carolina in 1909, 11 years before Prohibition went into effect.
However, agritourism has always been Iredell County’s number one industry. Consequently, farmers found that it was way more cost effective to distill grains than ship them elsewhere. This created a slew of stills in the county.
With the Prohibition movement and the establishment of the alcohol tax, the bootlegging movement of illegal distilleries and moonshining began in the 1920s and 1930s.
After Prohibition ended in 1933, the state permitted breweries and wineries to operate, but continued to ban the manufacturing of spirits. In 1978, the N.C. General Assembly ended a 70-year-old statewide ban on mixed-drink sales. Mixed-drink sales were allowed in Statesville bars and restaurants in 1986; Glutton’s restaurant became the first restaurant in the city of Statesville to sell mixed drinks.
In March of this year, Southern Distillery representatives attended the Glutton’s restaurant auction to purchase three copper-top tables from the restaurant because they felt it was appropriate for Statesville’s first distillery to own a piece of the first restaurant in Statesville to serve mixed drinks.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SOUTHERN DISTILLING COMPANY
Phone: (704) 978-7175
Address: 211 Jennings Road, Statesville, NC 28625