Craft beer isn’t the only member of the alcohol industry that has flourished across South Carolina in the last decade.
Since 2009, when the state legislature lowered the financial threshold for distillery licensure from $50,000 to $2,500, 34 distilleries have popped up across the state, many of them right here in the Holy City.
On Feb. 21, Charleston Distilling Co., currently located at 501 King St., announced a $4.2 million investment in a new 10,000-square-foot facility that is expected to be operational later this year. Located at 3548 Meeks Farm Road on Johns Island, it will include a tasting room with capacity for 50 people, an outdoor area, and a 45-foot-high still to increase production capability.
“Right now, we do about 50 barrels of whiskey a year, and in our new facility we can do that in two weeks,” says owner Stephen Heilman, who plans to increase his staff from five to 34.
Charleston Distilling Co.’s current offerings include two vodkas, two gins, and four whiskeys. And they all originate with grain grown in South Carolina, whether it’s corn, rye, wheat, or millet.
After the grain is acquired, five steps follow: milling, mashing to convert starch to sugar, fermentation to yield the ethanol alcohol, distilling to separate the pure ethanol, and maturation for select spirits to draw out additional flavors.
“We get our grain right now from Weathers Farm, up [interstates] 95 and 26,” Heilman says. “So they drop them off, and it comes super clean. We have our own mill, so we just take 50-pound bags of grain and put it in the mill. And we’ll do 800 to 1,000 pounds per run, but what you’re doing is just taking a starch and you’re breaking it down into sugars. And then you just take that sugar and convert it into alcohol, and the still separates everything.”
For Heilman, the rationale behind the distillery’s expansion can be distilled down to this: operating the highest-quality equipment is paramount to producing the finest spirits. For Charleston Distilling Co. to take the next step, they need an equipment upgrade and more space.
“Right now, our still is pretty small, like 2,000 liters,” Heilman says, “and we’re trying to make the world’s best vodka and bourbon at the same time, and we figured, get the best equipment going.”
The best things take time, they say — “We ordered equipment in December of 2016, and we’re still waiting on it,” Heilman says.
That makes the exact opening date of the new Johns Island facility difficult to pin down, but Heilman is hoping for midsummer, if all goes according to schedule moving forward.
“The building is almost ready to go, but we have to get the equipment in first, and it has to get plumbed and wired, and that’s going to take a couple of months, I think,” he says. “Until it’s actually here, I don’t know, but July is our goal.”
Like craft breweries, micro-distilleries in South Carolina have risen in popularity due to cultural shifts similar to those that now drive the local food movement. Not only has “local” become coded as “better” — in quality, taste, and value — but there’s also an emotional pull. Supporting local products makes residents feel more tied to their communities, while tourists feel more embedded in the place they’re visiting. If anyone is looking for a spirit that is quintessentially South Carolina, for example, there’s Charleston Distilling Co.’s Carolina Reaper Vodka, which infuses corn vodka with the notoriously hot Carolina Reaper peppers.
“I think people want something different,” Heilman says of the growing trend. “People are becoming more interested in craft whiskey and vodka.”
And in South Carolina, that interest has also been boosted by recently passed state laws that help to better facilitate sales for craft distillers.
In May 2017, the state legislature passed a law allowing distilleries to serve mixed drinks in their tasting rooms (as opposed to only tastes of straight liquor), giving them an opportunity to showcase their products in more creative ways.
“The cocktails are great,” Heilman says. “Before people would come in, and you’d always hear, ‘Well, in our state, we can have cocktails, and you can do this and that.’ It’s nice. Most people will do a flight, and they’ll taste everything, and then they’ll pick a cocktail from one of the products they liked.”
But Heilman says that for Charleston Distilling Co. and other micro-distilleries to reach their full potential in South Carolina, they need even more help from state lawmakers.
“Craft brewing, they have great laws,” he says. “And if we had their laws, there’d probably be 100 distilleries in the state.”
Changes Heilman would like to see for distilleries are later operating hours — right now, they have to close at 7 p.m. — and permission to serve food. Craft breweries, he notes, are also now allowed to serve liquor, and the regulations that apply to them are more generous than those that regulate distilleries.
“[Craft breweries] can actually make a cocktail with mixers, and we can’t,” Heilman says. “We have to make our own mixers ourselves. So it’d be nice to have vermouth. They can serve vermouth with our product, and we can’t do that ourselves, so that’s a little crazy. So we’re going to try to get that changed, but we’re always the black sheep of the family.”