Charleston Distilling Co.- The Birth of Booze
Author: Denise K. James | Photographer: Photography by Anne, Benton Henry
Most of us who enjoy a cocktail every now and then are concerned with the ways whiskey, gin or vodka end up, garnished with a slice of fruit and topped off with a squeeze of fresh juice or splash of bubbles. Brent Stephens, however, is more interested in the way liquor starts out and the intense process it endures to make the journey from a bag of grain into your rocks glass on Saturday night. Charleston Distilling Co. is Upper King Street’s newest birthing place for local liquor, and Stephens was kind enough to show me around and share how such marvelous products are brought to life.
Stephens grew up on Hilton Head Island but didn’t tarry long before exploring other places. He lived in Boston, Oxford, Barcelona, Los Angeles and Guadalajara before settling back into his home state. Though he practiced law for about eight years, Stephens’ interest in distilling liquor was piqued while he lived in Mexico and enjoyed the wealth of tequila.
“I’ve always been more of liquor drinker,” he said. “I visited a few different distilleries in Mexico and became inspired.”
Even before dropping by the Mexican distilleries, Stephens had an idea of what he wanted to do. He longed to own a business—something “hands on,” he said—but wasn’t interested in a restaurant. A distillery seemed to be the answer, and he began researching how to go about bringing his dream to fruition. While he was living in Charlotte, legislation in South Carolina opened the door for distilleries to take root in the Palmetto State.
THE TASTING ROOM AT CHARLESTON DISTILLING CO. WAS BUILT USING SALVAGED WOOD FROM THE CEILING OF THE ORIGINAL STRUCTURE AND A COPPER BAR AND FIXTURES TO COMPLEMENT THE HANDMADE COPPER STILLS. THE SPACE IS USED FOR TASTINGS IN CONJUNCTION WITH TOURS AND FOR PRIVATE EVENTS.
Stephens soon packed his bags for Charleston, the perfect place, he thought, for his new business.
Charleston Distilling Co. is currently producing vodka, two types of gin, rye whiskey, straight bourbon and three fresh macerated liqueurs, all of which can be purchased on site at quality shops.
“During my formative years, my dad lived in Charleston,” he explained when I asked why he chose the Holy City. “And I’ve always admired the food culture.”
Stephens gave me a thorough education in making booze, but he also made it sound simple. As we walked around the distillery, looking at the gigantic metal containers and the barrels, I realized I knew nothing about where my beloved bottles of bourbon originate. But all liquors start out as a mere pile of grains—corn, wheat and rye for example, which Stephens had in enormous bags in the back of the distillery.
“We get our grains locally, from a farm in Summerton,” he said. “Everything is made from these grains. It’s a simple process.”
If you’re the type of person who orders toasted marshmallow flavored vodka, you won’t find Stephens and his crew brewing a batch of that stuff. Charleston Distilling Co. is distilling creative recipes on classic spirits. Vodka made from corn and rye. American-style dry gin. A barrel-aged gin. Rye whiskey. I liked the sound of it, and that was before I even tasted any of it.
Grains are selected according to what type of liquor is being made (corn and rye for the vodka, for example). The chosen grain is put into hot water so that it converts into sugar. Next, enzymes are added to the sugar and yeast forms. After the yeast eats the sugar, it creates ethanol and carbon dioxide. The ethanol then has to be filtered out—a key part of the process. The more rigorous the filtering, the better the booze. You can bet, of course, that everything at the Charleston Distilling Co. is filtered with great care.
It is obvious that Stephens adores his task of keeping the distillery running smoothly and that he is keenly aware of what’s happening with each ingredient at all times. “We constantly monitor the temperatures and the pressure,” he said, showing me a screen where he can watch the “cooking” going on in the building from one spot.
Once the ethanol is filtered, some of it goes into barrels for the famous aging process. According to Stephens, different spirits can share barrels; for example, he had whiskey aging inside of an old rum barrel.
“We’re partners with another distillery, and they give us barrels,” Stephens said, watching me breathe in the aroma.
After letting me have a whiff, Stephens walked me over to a different barrel, which he described as gin aging inside of a bourbon barrel. He asked if I would like to try the gin. I couldn’t nod my head fast enough, even though I haven’t technically had any gin since my mid-20s, when I used to mix it with orange juice. Blechh, right?
When I tasted Stephens’ gin, I had no urge to pair it with juice of any sort. Though pungent, it was smooth and yielded aromas and flavors other than the notorious “pine tree” taste we know so well.
Next, we tried the bourbon whiskey, and, again, this is not the sort you would mix with ginger ale. I’m not the shot type, but sipping on straight liquor seemed natural to me at the Charleston Distilling Co.; everything was so easy to drink. Even the vodka, which was our last sample, was surprisingly smooth going down.
“Most people think vodka is made from either wheat or potato,” Stephens said, as he poured me a sample. “But ours is made with rye and corn. It results in a sweeter flavor, making the vodka more sippable,” he said. “While bourbon has other flavonoids, vodka is pure ethanol.”
Brent Stephens, a Hilton Head Island native, is president and master distiller at Charleston Distilling Co.
I loved my vodka sample. It did not sting my throat and nostrils, as I feared. In fact, I realized that I can pretty much drink anything, as long as it’s prepared correctly.
Charleston Distilling Co. is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. for tours. With each tour comes a tasting at the end. Visitors can sample 3oz pours of Charleston Distilling Co. spirits. Bottles are also available for purchase in the retail area of the distillery. You can purchase bottles from quality shops, thanks to Ben Arnold Distribution.
If you think of yourself as a fan of only certain spirits—bourbon and not vodka, for example—stop by; tasting a few items might convert you. But there’s no secret recipe or witchery involved. Stephens and team simply work hard with the best ingredients available.
“Good liquor is a combination of using the best grains, the right water and certain minerals, in addition to the process,” Stephens said.
Good liquor, in my estimation, also takes a passionate team to run a distillery.
Charleston Distilling Co. is located at 501 King Street, Charleston, S.C. For more information, call (843) 718-1446 or visit charelstondistilling.com.