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 ADI, there are about 240 small distilleries in the U.S. 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.
Georgia native Casey Teague, the 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 ADI'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." Thanks to legislation spearheaded by state Rep. Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville, home to Georgia Distilling Co., it is 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."
EIGHT GEORGIA MICRODISTILLERIES
-13th Colony Distillery
When 13th Colony started in 2009, it was the only "legal" craft distiller in the state. It now produces two varieties of vodka, Southern gin and Southern corn whiskey made in a custom-made 300-gallon still. No tours are currently offered.
305 N. Dudley St., Americus. http://www.13colony.net.
-Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery
Operating in the "moonshine capital of the world," Dawsonville Moonshine makes what it calls true unaged Georgia corn whiskey. This company, which launched in late November, uses a custom-made 250-gallon copper pot still for production. Tours and tastings are offered noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 415 Ga. 53 E., Dawsonville.
-Georgia Distilling Co.
This company, started by Bill Mauldin and Shawn Hall, who refer to themselves as "two wandering moonshiners," produces moonshine, vodka, sour mash, rye whiskey, corn whiskey, and apple and peach brandies. It uses Georgia-made stills ranging in size from 50 to 1,100 gallons. Look for tours of their facility to be offered early in 2013.
121 Blandy Way, Milledgeville. http://www.georgiadistilling.com.
-Ivy Mountain Distillery
Opening Ivy Mountain allowed master distiller Carlos Lovell the opportunity to return to his family tradition of distilling legally. The company, which launched in June, produces sour mash spirits, aged sour mash whiskey, apple brandy and peach brandy. The distillery plans to offer tours beginning in the spring. 1896 Dick's Hill Parkway, Mount Airy.
-Richland Distilling Co.
Richland Distilling Co. produces a single product: rum. The all-natural rum is produced daily in small batches using a copper pot still and a recipe that has been in development for more than 15 years. The company offers tours five days a week and will accommodate groups or offer a rum-making workshop upon request. 333 Broad St., Richland. http://www.richlandrum.com.
Note: Products by all of these producers are available at Mac McGee's Irish Pub in Decatur.
-Independent Distilling Co.
This craft distillery company run by Michael Anderson and Thomas Williams has signed a lease on a property in Decatur, where it plans to open next fall. The company will produce very small batches of whiskey, seasonal brandies and grappa using a 60-gallon still.
This new distillery, opening this month, will produce barrel-aged all-grain whiskey, moonshine and a selection of brandies, including apple, peach and blackberry. The distillery will use what it calls "old-fashioned Appalachian-style stills." Moonrise plans to begin offering tours soon after opening. 31 Webb Road, Clayton. http://www.moonrisedistillery.com.
-Old 4th Distillery
This intown distillery expects to be up and running within three to five months and hopes to have product on the shelves by September. It will focus on vodka and gin. 487 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. http://www.old4th.com.