Micro-distilleries in the Midlands
Richard Baker, owner of Columbia’s oldest micro-distillery, Copper Horse Distilling.
Photography by Jeff Amberg
The micro-distilling scene in the Midlands continues to grow as a handful of locally-owned businesses are producing spirits to satisfy the market of patrons looking for hand-crafted moonshine, vodkas, rums and bourbons. The owners of Copper Horse Distilling, JAKAL Distillery, Hollow Creek Distillery and Crouch Distilling all take pride in using local ingredients to create their products, and each small company’s owners have their hands all over their products from beginning to end.
Craft distilleries in South Carolina became much more popular in 2009 when the General Assembly adopted less restrictive legislations lowering state licensing fees by almost 90 percent from $50,200 every two years to $5,200. Slicing the costs so much made liquor micro-distilleries a feasible financial undertaking for local entrepreneurs who wanted to turn their products or hobbies into a business.
There are certainly challenges, and producing locally-owned spirits still isn’t very business-friendly. The three-tier system requires each company to have a distributor, which must sell the product to the liquor stores, which then can sell to consumers. The micro-distilleries in the Midlands are doing more than surviving — they’re growing and thriving.
Columbia’s First Micro-Distillery Stays on the Cutting Edge
Sometimes the first to do something will remain set in their ways and not evolve with the times. That’s not the case for Richard Baker, owner of Columbia’s oldest micro-distillery, Copper Horse Distilling. Richard freely admits he didn’t start off with a huge portfolio of products in mind, but he’s adapted as the wants of the customers have changed.
Richard began his career working in distilleries in Washington, Illinois and Kentucky. When he first got into the business, there were no more than 300 micro-distilleries in the country, but the market is now booming with brands popping up left and right.
“There’s been an exponential growth of people getting into this business,” Richard says. “There wasn’t a lot of competition early on. We were the first in this area, and now there are about six or seven places, and the expectation is that it continues to grow. There are a lot of brands out there, and larger distillery companies are making small brands because they want to capitalize on this market.”
Richard’s products are created using only local ingredients, including grains from Adluh Flour Mill just up the road from his location on Huger Street.
Copper Horse proudly bottles vodkas, rums and gin, but they’ve also gotten into the cream whiskey market, a perfect product for the winter months. Richard has also crafted a pepper-infused vodka with a bite called Hot, which goes well with rum or in a Bloody Mary.
“We spend a lot of time on quality control,” Richard says. “We want our product to be a quality product before it goes out the door. The hand-crafted and local aspect only gets you so far. We spend a lot of effort to ensure that people will enjoy our products.”
Next on the shelves, Copper Horse is working on a new vodka, called Sizzle, which will be unique to Copper Horse. They’re also developing rum liquors in different flavors, which will be a great summertime drink.
“Sizzle is going to be bacon-infused with our Hot,” Richard says. “Dialing back the heat a little bit and getting a bacon flavor in there should be a mouthwatering experience.”
Richard doesn’t want to lose control of his product though, and excellence is of utmost importance.
“We want people to be happy,” Richard says. “We want them to come in and take a tour, which is very in depth. We go through and explain the process, offer samples and have a lot fun.”
The Name is Family
Josh Lindler tasted more than a handful of less-than-legal moonshines and knew he could do it better, so he invested almost every dollar he had into creating JAKAL Distillery. It took a year to perfect his first product, and Josh says he’s been doing what he calls a “decent product” for five years. He has poured all of his earnings into his business, and his business represents his family.
“I wanted something that didn’t taste scolded, burnt with corn or just didn’t have a taste,” Josh says. “I wanted good quality, clean taste, no after bite.”
Each letter in JAKAL is the first initial of a family member’s name: his wife, Jessica; his oldest daughter Allysen, who is 9 years old; his only son, Konrad, 3; and Adalyn, who is 6. Lindler, of course, is his last name as the last letter of JAKAL. The family is in the logo as well. Each family member has their favorite animal hidden somewhere on the sign, so when swinging by the store, look for a dog, frog, horse, bumble bee and donkey.
“It’s a family thing for us,” Josh says. “When people ask us what makes us special, it’s family. Everyone who comes through the doors is treated like family because they are —they’re supporting us.”
Josh’s three children occasionally assist at the distillery, located just off of Highway 1 in Lexington, by helping bottle and label the products. They sticker two different moonshines and four rum products, which are for sale at their storefront and at a handful of distributors in the state.
“The kids are always wanting to lend a hand and help do things. It’s good to feel that support.”
Josh wants to keep the family touch on his product and stay, as he says, true to the way moonshining is done in the backwoods. Getting too big would keep him from having his fingerprints on each bottle, but there’s a long way to grow before JAKAL can reach a status that’s too big.
“We want to stay somewhat small, because that’s who we are and that’s how we started,” Josh says. “If you get bigger than you can handle, your product changes, and it’s not worth it anymore. If it’s not fun, there’s no point in doing it.”
The plan is to build a new distillery and include retail side with apparel to accompany the products in the next five years. It’s ambitious, but Josh has his family beside him and their fingerprints are all over the JAKAL brand.
Relationships and Partnerships
Relationships have always been important to Jessica and Phil Crouch, owners of Crouch Distilling, and they display that in their company every single day. They’re the new kids on the block starting their company in 2014 after Phil, a miller of corn and flour, took a liking to crafting beer then distilling whiskey.
Along with using local products, quality ingredients and supporting other local businesses are as important as relationships to the Crouches, and it can be seen — even tasted — in their products.
“Our community in Columbia wants to see local do well, and they’re very quick to jump on board,” Jessica says. “People are looking for more ethically-sourced products, and they’re trying to connect with the makers.”
Most of the ingredients are bought within the state, to make their whiskeys and bourbons. While spirits are their passion, they take the spent grains, which is left over after the mashing process, and feed it to the heritage hogs they raise. Those hogs are processed at an Animal Welfare Approved and USDA Certified processor, and then cuts of pork are sold on site.
“We approach things a little bit differently as an agricultural pursuit using quality grains that most people aren’t using,” Jessica says. “Making these whiskeys retain the flavor of these grains — that’s part of the story. Then the grains have a second life with the pigs.”
The Crouches also use spent grain from Hunter-Gatherer and Conquest Brewing to feed the pigs, which are eventually processed for sale as pork chops, sausage and bacon.
Crouch Distilling then pays it forward by sending their used barrels to Turtle Creek Coffee Roasters, which is based in Columbia. Their coffee beans are aged in the barrels for bourbon- and rye barrel-aged coffee.
“People like the sense of community we’re fostering and that we are creating these products that are hyper local and also high-quality that they can then share with their friends,” Jessica says.
In addition to the various products that can be bought out of the storefront, which is located just down the road from Williams-Brice Stadium, Crouch Distilling’s spirits can be found at various restaurants and shops locally. Motor Supply Co. Bistro, The Whig and Terra Restaurant are just a few of the places that have supported Crouch Distilling during their short time on the scene, and there will certainly be more as the Crouches build relationships and support others in the community.
Embraced by the Leesville Community
Take a short ride to Leesville down Rocky Ridge Road, and “The Barn” where Hollow Creek Distillery sits can be found tucked behind old oak trees overlooking the waters of Lake Murray. It’s a beautiful setting.
Their tag line, “More experience than the law allows,” brings people to The Barn looking for hand-crafted Southern moonshine in one of their seven different flavors. Apple Pie and Honey moonshines are the top sellers, but currently they can only be bought storefront as Hollow Creek is still working on obtaining a distributor, and that’s only if the locals haven’t bought all of the product — the hot items go quickly. The community has embraced HCD, and HCD has embraced the community. They use local products to make their moonshine and are involved in every aspect, from the ingredients to the planted seed to the seal of the bottle. There is local support, and Hollow Creek always offers their thanks.
“We’re from the area, it’s a family run business and we believe in it. We believe in local and want good things to happen for our community,” says Meredith Amick, HCD marketing director. “Our family has really been a part of that growing community, and we want to continue that. We want to see nothing but great things for the community.”
The community is invited to The Barn three days a week for tours and samplings. But there are more than just tastings, HCD also holds community events. A Fall Kickoff in September was a huge success bringing out local country band The Blue Pickups, and patrons were served hamburgers and hot dogs off the grill. They are working to set up family-friendly events that will be held every few months.
More community events are planned, but so are more products that the customers request. Pumpkin moonshine debuted in October, and there are a few more flavors in the pipeline that may be released in early 2017.
“We are absolutely pleased with the reception in the community,” Meredith says. “We’re continuing to grow our name and grow our brand so that we can get into liquor stores, but local is very important to us.”