The idea popped into Melissa Katrincic’s head as she and her husband, Lee, were driving home to Durham after a weekend in Savannah.
“Why don’t we make gin?” she said.
Lee just laughed.
“I didn’t take her seriously,” he said.
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Two years and four months later, the Durham couple’s two gins and three liqueurs have landed on shelves in ABC stores in Durham and Wake counties.
After the conversation, Melissa and Lee, both 39 and parents of two boys ages 7 and 4, took the idea and shaped it into Durham Distillery. They started their small business in September 2013 and operate out of 711 Washington St., next to recently relocated The Blue Note Grill.
Durham Distillery makes two varieties of small-batch gin in a 230-liter custom-designed German copper pot still using water and pure-grade ethanol infused with botanicals, such as juniper, coriander and cardamom. The gins, American Dry and Navy Strength, are sold under the CONNIPTION brand. The three liqueurs, available in coffee, mocha and chocolate flavors, are sold under the DAMN FINE brand.
Durham Distillery is part of the expanding craft distillery industry. There are currently more than 750 craft distilleries in the U.S., up from just a dozen about 10 years ago, according to the National Craft Spirits Association.
“Craft spirits are actually growing more rapidly than craft beer did in its early years, and most analysts predict that craft spirits will contribute at least 1 percent of spirits’ industry volume within a decade,” according to the association’s spokeswoman Alexandra Sklansky.
Lee, who has worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for about 18 years, incorporated his own spin into the gin-distilling process by using a device that he works with in his lab to explore transforming early-stage drugs into a usable state, like a powder. As a principal scientist for Catalent, Lee uses a rotary evaporator to gently remove solvents in early-stage pharmaceuticals. At the distillery, Lee uses the device to distill delicate botanicals, such as cucumbers and honey suckle, into alcohol at room temperature.
Cooking those botanicals at high temperatures in the larger still, he said, would make them bitter.
Melissa’s interest in gin stemmed from her grandfather giving her olives out of his nightly gin martini.
As she grew up, she developed an appreciation for gin martinis, she said.
That evolved into her trying different gin offerings that she would run across. She roped her husband into the gin adventure.
“You start to realize how different each gin is from one another,” Melissa said. “It’s the botanicals that they use. It is the base neutral spirit that they use. … They are very much like wine.”
Before the car-ride conversation, Melissa had been trying to come up with a business the couple could work on together as she knew she was being laid off at specialty pharmaceutical company POZEN.
When Melissa returned home from Savannah, she started doing research on how to open a distillery. She secured the website for Durham Distillery, just in case.
“Something just felt right about it,” she said.
The Katrincics booked a three-day course on opening a distillery at Koval in Chicago in September 2013.When they got on the plane to go home, they looked at each other and said “Let’s go for it,” Melissa said.
Melissa started writing a business plan and seeking feedback from colleagues and family.
They successfully sought a Small Business Administration backed loan, which covered about half of their start-up costs. The Katrincics and three investors covered the rest. They sought their federal distillers permit, approved in December 2014, and completed other federal requirements by spring. Then they sought the permits required by the N.C. Alcoholic and Beverage Control Commission. That process was completed in August.
The Katrincics are working to get their products in other counties and preparing to start giving tours in October, when a new state law will allow distilleries to sell one bottle, per customer, per year.
About the products
The Katrincics describe CONNIPTION’s American Dry as an 88-proof contemporary gin vacuum infused with cucumber and honeysuckle. It retails for $33.95. Navy Strength is 114 proof and retails for $38.95.
Durham Distillery also produces three liqueurs under the brand DAMN FINE. The flavors include coffee, mocha and chocolate. They are made with Slingshot Coffee and Videri Chocolate, both made by Raleigh companies. The liqueurs retail for $23.95.