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NC breweries enter the world of distilling

Boylan Bridge Brewpub founder Andrew Leager stands in the 8,000-square-foot woodworking shop in the basement below on Thursday, June 16, 2016, where he plans to bring in two new businesses: a distillery and a barrel-making operation.
Boylan Bridge Brewpub founder Andrew Leager stands in the 8,000-square-foot woodworking shop in the basement below on Thursday, June 16, 2016, where he plans to bring in two new businesses: a distillery and a barrel-making operation. jleonard@newsobserver.com

The Boylan Bridge Brewpub patio offers one of the best views of Raleigh’s skyline, but not a soul has sipped an Endless Summer ale since the brewpub closed in February after a basement wall collapsed. And founder Andrew Leager is OK with that.

“It’s one of the best things that ever happened to us, the collapse,” Leager said.

That’s because Leager is using the opportunity to rebuild the wall and bring behind it two new businesses: a distillery and a barrel-making operation.

While the brewpub’s deck is a popular spot, few know there is an 8,000-square-foot woodworking shop in the basement below. Even before the collapse, Leager was researching ways to adapt his equipment to craft the staves and heads needed to build barrels. And he had also been looking to produce spirits to put in those barrels.

Leager wouldn’t be the first brewer-turned-distiller. Big-name breweries around the country like Anchor Brewing Co., as well as Ballast Point, Dogfish Head and Rogue Ales breweries have all ventured into the world of distilled spirits. There are examples from North Carolina as well, including Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston and Top of the Hill Restaurant, Brewery and Distillery in Chapel Hill.

It makes sense, seeing that whiskey essentially begins life as a non-hopped beer before it is distilled.

“Whiskey and beer are different products, but they start with the same two tanks, the mash tun and the kettle,” said Leager.

Leager’s two new ventures, Boylan Barrelworks and Hargett Hill Distillery, will complement the existing business in several ways. When business slows during the colder months, he can still use the brewery to produce the “wash” that is later distilled. He plans to produce a variety of spirits, including gin, vodka, single-malt whiskey and even a bourbon he will age in his own white-oak barrels after the expansion is complete.

Mark Doble, owner of Aviator Brewing Co. in Fuquay-Varina, knows something about expansion. The brewery that began inside an old airport hangar has grown to include the Aviator TapHouse, Aviator SmokeHouse, and a production brewery that recently grew by 12,000 square feet.

Once permitting is approved, a small distillery inside that brewery will produce gin, vodka, brandy and a white spirit with a long history in this state. “Because we’re in North Carolina, moonshine is just something that everyone expects, and I think it would just be fun to do,” said Doble.

Because we’re in North Carolina, moonshine is just something that everyone expects, and I think it would just be fun to do.

Mark Doble, owner of Aviator Brewing Co., Fuquay-Varina

In the next year and a half, Doble plans to build a second brewery with a larger distillery on a 5-acre site in a former Gold Leaf Tobacco Co. building – hence the name for his new operation, Gold Leaf Distilling.

Boylan Bridge Brewpub and Aviator Brewing Co. aren’t the only ones to venture down this path to distilling.

When a farmer approached Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill with an abundant supply of locally grown wheat, the founders opted not to produce beer with the grain – but it did inspire them to start a distillery. Founded in 2012, TOPO Distillery’s portfolio includes a vodka, gin and two different whickeys (one aged in oak, one a white whiskey more in the moonshine tradition). All are produced using organic ingredients sourced no more than 100 miles away.

Over in Kinston, Mother Earth Brewing Co. unveiled Mother Earth Spirits at its five-year anniversary party in 2014. “It’s kind of the same type of process and we already had the infrastructure already set up, so we were like, ‘Why not?’” said co-founder Trent Mooring.

Of course, that’s oversimplifying things. There’s more red tape involved in opening a distillery than there is in opening a brewery, and then there’s the matter of learning the craft and developing the recipes. For its whiskey, Mother Earth didn’t have to look too far.

“It was born out of the beer, actually,” said Kevin Graham, who moved from working in the brewery to become head distiller. “It’s the same malt that we use to make our IPA with.”

In Charlotte, Great Wagon Road Distilling Co.’s spirits are born out of beer as well, though not their own. They contract with their next-door neighbors at The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery to produce their wash. The same wheat malt used in OMB’s Hornet’s Nest Hefeweizen is used to create a wash for Great Wagon Road’s vodka, while pilsner malt used in the brewery’s Captain James Jack Pilsner finds its way into the wash for Rúa, a single-malt whiskey.

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at cltbeer@gmail.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.

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