Jonathan Blitz and Michael Sinclair are adding a spiritual twist to the farm-to-table concept.
“It has always been our dream to go from field to glass or field to flask,” said Blitz, an attorney turned distiller who co-owns with Sinclair Barrister & Brewer, which puts out Mystic Bourbon Liqueur and Heart of Mystic Bourbon Whiskey.
Blitz spoke standing on 22 acres on North Mineral Springs Road. He stood before a 3,000 square foot barn-like building that he and Sinclair built with their own hands. The space includes a distillery, tasting room and a wide front porch.
Behind him sat land where they plan to keep bees, harvest honey and grow corn and winter wheat they will turn into bourbon. They’ll use farming equipment they bought on Craigslist and learned how to use by watching YouTube videos, along with some help from an Orange County farmer and others.
The small-business owners are among a handful of North Carolina distillers seeking to grow their own ingredients.
Scott Maitland, president of the Distillers Association of North Carolina, said distillers are moving forward with that concept, along with sourcing from local farmers, something that craft brewers struggle with due to the state’s climate.
“The Achilles heel of beer is we just don’t have the climate to grow what we need to make world class beer on any real scale,” said Maitland, who owns TOPO Distillery and Top of the Hill Brewery in Chapel Hill, the fifth oldest craft brewery in the state.
Ninety-Nine percent of the beer made in North Carolina is made from agriculture ingredients that come from outside the state, he said.
“Whereas, for distilling purposes, we have what we need to make a whole host of things,” said Maitland, who buys about 200 tons of wheat a year from an organic farmer for his distillery.
Ron Fish, assistant director for agribusiness development with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said distilleries and breweries present opportunities for farmers in the state.
Brewers require a higher-quality grain for beer than distilleries do for liquor. But researchers at N.C. State University and others are working on varieties that will grow and work better for both industries.
Meanwhile, there are other challenges related to harvesting and storage that officials are working to address.
“We are in the process of two things: trying to educate and bring the growers along as to how they can meet that requirement of distilleries and breweries and also provide the tools as in varieties and production practices so they can deliver the product that is suitable for the market,” Fish said.
Beyond selling liquor on shelves, the concept of farm-to-flask blends into the agritourism concept of bringing visitors to craft distilleries to show them the work that goes into making spirits while building brand awareness and loyalty. A 2015 state law lets craft distilleries sell visitors a single bottle of their product.
At Barrister & Brewer they are offering tours, as well as renting out the space for events. Blitz and Sinclair, a software engineer who still works full time, founded Barrister & Brewer in 2013. At the time, they were on a quest to start a distillery.
The two met through a mutual friend. They drafted a business plan to get into the liquor business, but they never obtained the financing required.
After they walked out of their “40th investor meeting” Sinclair handed Blitz a jar and said “taste this,” Blitz said.
Sinclair’s wife, Katie, had made it on the kitchen stove.
Sinclair’s family is from Scotland, which he had visited for a gathering of clan descendants. He bought a bottle of a Scotch liqueur. When he got home, the bottle broke and the Sinclairs decided to make his own version using bourbon.
The product became a prototype for Mystic, a blend of wildflower honey, nine spices and bourbon.
The partners decided to ease into the business by starting with a blended liqueur, which required less upfront investment and was easier to bring to market.
They started as a virtual distillery making about 60 barrels of whiskey in a distillery in Indiana. Then they invested about $30,000 for equipment, ingredients and other start-up costs and mixed and bottled their product at The Brothers Vilgalys Baltic Spirits’ downtown Durham facility.
“We maxed out as many credit cards as they would give us,” Sinclair said. “I had three maxed out myself.”
Land into the bottle
Over the years, the company’s distribution has spread from Durham and Wake counties to across the Carolinas to Virginia and Washington DC.
About two years ago, they started eying moving into their own building. They explored some industrial spaces, but then decided to go with property where they can not only have a tasting room and give tours of the production area, but grow ingredients.
Throughout the farming process, they’ve turned to Blitz’s wife, Marla, an avid home gardener, YouTube videos and a Hillsborough farmer from whom they are leasing 20 acres to grow winter wheat.
They will continue to lease other acreage because they won’t be able to grow all of their ingredients for long-term demand, and the quality of their soil presents challenges. Still, they hope the hands-on process gives them a little extra magic in the bottle.
“It really goes to the philosophy of really going from the land into the bottle and honoring that aspect of making something completely with your own hands,” Blitz said. “And also recognizing that if you use all local ingredients the whiskey is going to taste a lot different than something that’s sort of run out the elevator … that comes out of a giant 60,000 bushel silo.
Currently they have planted about a quarter acre of blueberries, which they hope to expand to two acres to offer a pick-your-own opportunity.
They have grown two acres of a Cherokee heirloom corn variety, which they will use for seed to plant about 12 acres this summer.
And in the fall they will plant the winter wheat, along with buckwheat for the bees. It will take some time before consumers will get to taste the results of the company’s farm-to-glass model.
“It will be three years before you can buy it at the ABC,” Blitz said. “Maybe two.’”