This past November, I was invited by Ken Bernardo to be part of a fundraising event in the memory of his father who died of heart disease, for the American Heart Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. I flew in early and Ken was kind enough to take me to a couple of nearby distilleries. My trip was just an overnight stay and I did not check any bags on my flights, so I did not purchase any bottles to take home.
We started our distillery tour in Statesville, N.C. at the Southern Distilling Company, about a 45-minute drive north of Charlotte. Ken is friends with the owners Peter and Vienna Barger and they arranged a private tour of the distillery and a tasting of their whiskeys. The distillery is a very modern-looking operation with computer monitoring at every step of production. Pete is a trained engineer and helped design the distillery. The equipment was made by Vendome Copper and Brass and they worked with Peter to design a very attractive tail box that looks like a double-barreled shotgun. The column still is mostly stainless steel but the plates and head are made of copper so there is plenty of exposure to copper in the distilling process.
There are several large fermenters making sweet mash whiskeys. They use a very thick mash with mature mashes having several inches of grain floating on the top. When I tasted the Mash, my hand was covered with the grains, but it was worth the mess. The beer with very fruity with lots of citrus notes. The mash is double-distilled with the column and a pot still and entered into 53-gallon barrels at a lower proof of about 120. The warehousing has a few barrel racks, but many of the barrels are palletized.
After the tour, we sat down for a tasting. Their main line of brands is Southern Star. They have a corn whiskey, a rye and a Bourbon. At this time they are using sourced whiskey and it is a decent product, but by early 2020 they will be bottling some of their own 2-year-old products. Frankly, I liked their 2-year old better than their sourced whiskey that was twice as old. I remember their whiskey having lots of the fruit I tasted in the mash as well as sweet vanilla and caramel notes. I look forward to the release and I will have to get some for review after it is released.
From Statesville, Ken and I traveled to the Southern Grace Distilleries in Mt. Pleasant, N.C. This was another 45-minute drive from Statesville. I had met Leanne Powell when she was pouring their Conviction Bourbon at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival back in March 2019. I loved their two-year-old Bourbon and I promised her I would visit the distillery when I was in North Carolina in November. Unfortunately, Leanne passed away in July, but I wanted to honor my promise to her. I am glad that I did. Ken also knows Thomas Thacker, the co-owner of the distillery, and had arranged a private tour for us with Tom.
The Southern Grace Distillery is located in an old State prison, with the distillery in one old cell block and the warehousing in another. Tom met us at the distillery building and gave us a tour. The distillery is the opposite of what I saw at Southern Distilling. It is not the million-dollar distillery with large fermenters and Vendome stills. The fermenters are 55-gallon plastic drums filled with sour mash Bourbon. There are about 30 or so barrels in various stages of fermentation. The distillery is a pot still operation that has a bit of a rustic look. They double-distill the spirit and place it in 53-gallon barrels at 105 proof. They are aged in barrel racks behind the bars of the cell block warehouse. They only make about a barrel a day, so it is not a large operation, but they do make a very good straight Bourbon. They also make a corn whiskey and some flavored moonshine, but the Conviction Bourbon is the star of the show. I have reviewed this product and you can read the review here.
They are aging some barrels for a four-year-old, and Tom showed us these barrels, located in a separate cell block from the majority of the barrels. There were maybe 30 barrels segregated from the rest based upon flavor profile. The four-year-old whiskey will be very special and in limited amounts. I will have to ask Ken to get me a bottle when it comes out. My trip to North Carolina was a very good time for a good cause. The charity event was a lot of fun and besides representatives from the two distilleries I visited, John Little from Smooth Ambler was there pouring whiskey. I look forward to returning next year. If you find yourself in the Charlotte area, I do hope you too, will visit these distilleries. You will be glad you did.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach