A new kind of business is finding a home in this area.
One craft distillery launched its first product in recent weeks in Knightdale and in a few more, a second distillery will open in Wendell. Their openings follow a national trend toward small, craft distilleries that have opened in the wake of the craft brewing trend.
Lee Browne of Oaklee Distilling Co., at 13 N Main St., Wendell, said there were 200 American craft distillers in 2010 when he first started thinking about getting into the business when he was still a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. A March study of craft spirits production found 1,280 active craft spirit producers nationwide in 2015.
Browne hopes to start selling his first product in November, a 90-proof vodka made in part from sweet potatoes called Boots Vodka. He also has plans to produce a gin by the spring and has bourbon and rye currently aging in charred barrels for future release.
Gentry Lassiter of Lassiter Distilling Co., at 319 N. First Ave., Knightdale, has taken a smaller scale approach, focusing only on one product to start off, a white rum, Lassiter’s North Carolina Rum, that is already available at local ABC stores for $24.95 a fifth.
Lassiter and his wife, Rebecca, first started thinking about opening a distillery when they were living in Chicago and took a tour of one in Milwaukee about three years ago. Then a year later they had the chance to chat with the master distiller after a tour at a distillery in Galena, Ill.
“Although the corporate life was satisfying,” Gentry Lassiter said, “I wanted to do something on my own.” The couple decided they wanted to come back to the Raleigh area where he had family ties and near where she had gone to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, and looked at about five towns in the Raleigh area, finding what they were looking for in an old storefront in Knightdale’s Old Town.
Both Lassiter and Browne spoke of an interest in science that helped get them involved in distilling, although neither studied science in college. Both are mostly self-taught distillers, although Browne took a week-long class in Chicago, where he bought his equipment.
Browne said running a small distillery has required him to draw on skills from several fields, including electricity and plumbing. “That’s what makes it fun, is it’s a constant learning process,” he said.
Browne also works a full-time job while he gets the distillery started, working in sales for his father’s company, a distributor of promotional products such as logos, a connection that he plans to put to use when it comes time to promote his distilleries’ products.
All the sweet potatoes used in Oaklee’s vodka are from North Carolina, and all his other grain is from either North Carolina or Virginia, Browne said. He said his product will stand out as a bit higher-proof than other vodkas, which are mostly 80 proof. It will sell at $27.95 a fifth.
“We would like to be well represented, of course, locally,” Browne said, “in North Carolina, and then go from there. The Southeast will be our initial target and we will move from there.”
Lassiter said his rum is designed to be good for mixing and that it works well in a classic daiquiri with just lime juice, sugar and rum. His goals are more modest than Browne’s focusing more on going statewide as the goal.
Matt Goad: 919-829-4826