Food & Drink

‘Still and Barrel’ traces NC’s distilling history while keeping eye on potential for more

John Benefiel makes a rum drink during a taste testing at the Raleigh Rum Company’s distillery in northeast Raleigh in 2015. The distillery is featured in the new book, “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State” by John Francis Trump.
John Benefiel makes a rum drink during a taste testing at the Raleigh Rum Company’s distillery in northeast Raleigh in 2015. The distillery is featured in the new book, “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State” by John Francis Trump. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When most people wax poetic about distilled spirits in North Carolina, they focus on the state’s storied past – moonshine gulped from Mason jars, stills hidden in piney underbrush and daredevil drivers running liquor along twisting Piedmont roads.

North Carolina author and journalist John Francis Trump weaves plenty of history into his new book, “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits In the Old North State,” which is being released this week. He provides a concise and insightful history of how North Carolina went from being the most prolific maker of spirits in the country 100 years ago, only to become a spirits wasteland in the wake of Prohibition.

He traces the roots of the current resurgence in the craft distilling industry, as more than three dozen N.C. independent spirits makers endeavor to compete in a market dominated by global liquor powerhouses.

Throughout the book, which also serves as a guide on how to make the most of experiencing each of the state’s spirits-making enterprises, Trump keeps his eyes fixed on the future and the idea that North Carolina’s distilling future holds as much, if not more, promise than its past.

That future, Trump says, depends on changing North Carolina’s laws. The state made a big step forward when the “One-Bottle Law” passed in 2015, making it legal for distillers to sell their products on-site. Those sales are limited to one bottle per customer per year.

While this move bolstered the industry, the state has a chance to do more this year with passage of Senate Bill 155, titled “Economic & Job Growth for N.C. Distilleries” and known more popularly as the “Brunch Bill.” Not only would this bill allow restaurants to sell alcohol before noon on Sunday, it would also loosen restrictions on sales for distilleries by increasing the number of on-premises sales from its current standard to five bottles per customer per year. In addition, it would allow distillers greater opportunities to present tastings off-premises as wine and beer makers are now allowed to do.

Senate Bill 155 would really help the distilleries,” said Trump, a journalist who has worked at several North Carolina newspapers and is currently the managing editor of Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation.

“It would behoove everyone to get behind it,” Trump says. “It’s not about alcohol so much as it’s about entrepreneurship. We’re missing a huge opportunity in North Carolina if we don’t get behind this.”

“Still & Barrel” offers dozens of snapshots of this entrepreneurial spirit in action. There’s the story of Piedmont Distillers in Madison, which in 2005 produced the first legal liquor in North Carolina since Prohibition. Their Catdaddy moonshine, in a variety of flavors, is now for sale in all 50 states, the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand and China. More than 30 people work producing their wares.

Piedmont is a juggernaut whose founder Joe Michalek is a former marketing executive for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. But the North Carolina market is also home to businesses like Raleigh’s Pinetop Distillery, makers of “grain-to-glass raw-whiskey.” Pinetop’s marketing budget and output are dwarfed by those of an operation like Piedmont much less the incredible muscle of international spirits corporations.

Representatives from some of the distilleries featured in Trump’s book will be at upcoming book signings this month. They’ll join Trump in panel discussions about the state of craft distilling.

Their best bet, Trump says, is to build a grassroots market, an effort that would get a big boost from raised limits on bottle sales.

“It’s a crowded market. It’s a tough market,” Trump says. “It’s hard to get noticed on ABC shelves, especially if you’re up against Crown Royal and Jim Beam.”

Trump is confident in the future of the state’s craft spirits in part because he got a taste of these artisans’ passion for their craft. As a whole, they are dedicated to producing high-quality beverages that are going to improve with age.

“Our clear spirits are on par with anything you can buy anywhere,” Trump says. “Once we start aging whiskey ... it’s world class now and it will just get better.”

“Still & Barrel” offers a sunny look at the future of the state’s spirit industry. Here’s hoping political winds will be at the industry’s back.

Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at ambernim@yahoo.com.

Want more?

“Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State” by John Francis Trump will be published May 9. (John F. Blair, $19.95). For more on the book and upcoming signings, go to facebook.com/StillandBarrel.

Upcoming signings

John Trump will sign his book and be part of a panel discussion about the state of craft distilling in North Carolina. Representatives from distilleries in the book will be present for the panel, along with some samples of their spirits.

▪ Wednesday, May 10, at 7 p.m.: Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh. Gentry Lassiter (Lassiter Distilling Company), John Benefiel (Raleigh Rum), Jimbo Eason (Covington Spirits)

▪ Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m.: The Regulator, 720 Ninth St., Durham. Chris Jude and Kevin Bobal (Fair Game Beverage Co.) and Melissa & Lee Katrincic (Durham Distillery)

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