September 2017

Hilton Head Distillery and Peter’s Palate: A Contemporary Take on a Centuries-Old Tradition

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Like the woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections of an orchestra coming together to create beautiful music, molasses, water, and the elusive mettle of Peter Thompson’s palate come together at Hilton Head Distillery; tested and turned this way and that in a space that strongly resembles the inner-workings of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, spirits emerge delightfully smooth and uniquely Hilton Head Island.

Dispensing from their one-year-old tasting room, bottle shop, and distillery, executive distiller Peter Thompson and his team are reverently offering finely crafted rums and vodka including, Two Traditions White Rum, Toasted Coconut Rum, Mountain Peak Espresso Flavored Rum, Redlock Spiced Rum, and Aermoor Vodka. “For us, everything is different,” Thompson said. “We have state-of-the-art, custom-made equipment that nobody can ever replicate. On top of the equipment, we’re also using our proprietary, custom-blend of molasses. It helps people perceive the product as being a lot smoother, a lot better, a lot creamier.”

Like a symphony conductor, a distillery’s executive distiller creates the mood, personality, and taste of their line. At HHD, Thompson brings with him not only an urbane palate, but an entrepreneurial spirit, a smidgen of mad scientist, and the mind of an avant-garde engineer. “Guys like Peter have a natural sense that probably most of us don’t,” said Jillian Stephens, HHD’s business manager, a.k.a. the woman responsible for getting their rums and vodka on the shelves of liquor stores and in restaurants and bars. “He’s smelling and tasting everything as it goes; mostly it’s his palate that’s deciding whether it’s good. That’s the fascinating thing about the process.”


Jillian Stephens, the business manager at Hilton Head Distillery
Peter Thompson, the executive distiller at Hilton Head Distillery

The business of distilling spirits is one where passion propels team members to build careers. Originally from Southern California, Stephens arrived on Hilton Head Island after spending time in Portland, Oregon where the local craft brew industry first caught her attention. “Then I got involved with craft spirits in Greenville [South Carolina] with our sister company, Dark Corner Distillery,” (where Thompson was the assistant distiller). “Peter’s the one who trained me, and I fell in love with it. I really like the idea of the whole local movement and using the best, freshest ingredients to change someone’s drinking experience.”

With Thompson orchestrating the opening of Hilton Head Distillery, he had the opportunity to create something that had been percolating in his distiller’s soul since his time at Clemson University. “I started making my own beer in my apartment and really fell in love with it,” he said. Majoring in management, he talked his way into a class in the biosystems engineering department on fermentation science. “I was the only person in the class that wasn’t in the engineering program. We made beer every day. I helped design and build a 15-gallon automated brewing system for the university. While I was doing all that, I started making wine too. Then from wine I went into making my own still and producing spirits in my apartment.

“Spirits were more fun than brewing. Brewing is kind of like baking. Once you make a good recipe, as long as you follow that recipe the same way every time, you’re going to get the same product every time. Distilling is all about that one person’s taste and smell at the very end. Everything else can be different up to that point, but you can pretty much make the same product just by tasting and smelling.”

Open to the public for tastings, tours, and sales, HHD shows off not only their exemplary spirits, but their one-of-a-kind production facility, designed by Thompson in collaboration with other industry experts. The making of rums and vodka requires terms like heads and hearts and tails; it involves elements like kettles and pipes and heat and valves and plates. And at HHD, it involves carefully cultivated water. “We’re using an air water generator,” Thompson said. “It’s like a giant dehumidifier. It pulls in all the moisture from the air, turning it back into water.” Which is the only water used to make their products. Not only is the very air and atmosphere of Hilton Head Island distilled into their liquors, the low particulate level of the water makes for a higher PH, which is better for the body. Dare to say, they are making healthier liquors.

The HHD collection was developed by Thompson with a specific goal in mind. “Every spirit should be able to be enjoyed neat and still carry a really nice flavor that’s not too sweet.” Research and experimentation are key to Thompson’s approach. He spent several months in the Caribbean learning about spiced rum and developing his proprietary blend of spices—one he’ll never share. Not a fan of coffee, the espresso rum was a particularly daunting challenge. “I went to Java Burrito and got a cup of coffee, a shot of espresso, and an espresso milkshake. It helped me figure out where the product needed to be. I went with as little sugar as was possible and got to 80 proof. I created the first espresso or coffee flavored rum that’s over 60 proof.”

Sponsoring local events like the Concourse d’ Elegance and the seafood festival, along with pop-up tastings at local liquor stores, and getting on the menu at a growing number of restaurants in the area, HHD is building a devoted following. Their facilities are also available for private events for small groups up to 100 guests, and their website is a great resource for information on their menu of spirits, including an extensive collection of cocktail recipes, tastings, special events, and tours where you will see all that cool Willy Wonka-esque equipment and learn some fascinating history.

Innovation and technology inform the long-standing traditions of their craft, where the goal is a modern stewardship of a very old process. “Even when I’m developing recipes, I still go back to what they were doing a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, to figure out ways I can do it, but with a modern twist.” Thompson said. With some molasses, some Lowcountry air, and Peter’s palate, they are orchestrating some flat-out, fantastic spirits at Hilton Head Distillery.

Hilton Head Distillery is located at 14 Cardinal Road, Hilton Head Island. For more information, please call (843) 686-4443 or visit hiltonheaddistillery.com.

OF NOTE: HHD will be releasing a dark rum on December 8, just in time for holiday celebrations and gift-giving.

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