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Monday, June 23, 2014 - 11:27am

Micro-distilling Craze Taking Off In Georgia

Call it moonshining 2.0.

The old backwoods tradition is making a big comeback in Georgia. But there is no need for Thunder Road runs any more. Now, booze-making can be perfectly legal.

It’s happening in micro distilleries that have been popping up across the state. They are for liquor what microbreweries are for beer: mom-and-pop shops that make spirits in small batches. With drinks such as “Hellbender”, “Copper Head Sour Mash” and “Bear Creek Sippin’ Shine”, they are not shy about their moonshining roots.

“This is little bit of family heritage for me,” Tommy Williams, the CEO of Independent Distilling Company in Decatur, told GPB’s On The Story. “My grandfather made and ran whiskey in South Georgia around the prohibition era and this is something that he and I really enjoy”.

Williams’ company has recently released its first whiskey, Hellbender, named after a salamander fish that lives in some Georgia rivers.

Williams said he purposely chose to make spirits the old-fashioned way, just like moonshiners used to do in the woods back in the day.

“There are more technologically-advanced ways we could be making our whiskey, but we chose the traditional route, to live the way my grandfather and people like him used to live,” he said.

There are currently at least eight micro distilleries in Georgia, with others planned. They all have popped up over the past five years. Their hooch, so to speak, is whiskey, run, vodka or gin, usually made from local ingredients.

“You hear about farm-to-table,” said Michael Anderson, the president of Independent Distilling Company. “But we talk about field-to-bottle, grain-to glass.”

Georgia’s micro distilleries are following a trend that’s been happening across the nation. The American Distilling Institute told GPB that there are 623 micro distilleries in the U.S., plus about 100 more in the making. Micro-distilling is a business that grows about 30 percent a year. The institute also said that it’s very rare for a distillery to go bust.

13th Colony Distillery in Americus, GA can testify to that.

When it was opened in 2009, it was Georgia’s first legal distillery since the prohibition. Five years later, its payroll has increased from four to eight employees. The distillery plans to double its production this year, to more than 25,000 bottles. Lindsay Cotton, the director of sales and marketing, said that 13th Colony is hoping to become a national brand at some point.

But what is driving this micro-distilling craze? Some people said it comes to two words: “local” and “novelty”.

“People are tired of big corporations, tired of sameness of everything, they are trying to be different,” said David Deegan, the general manager of Mac McGee Irish Pub in Decatur, that serves many of the liquors made in Georgia.

Deegan also said people can see that buying locally is good for them, because it creates jobs and keeps money in their communities.

“You spent a lot of money on Budweiser or Miller Lite,” he said. “Well, that’s not helping your community at all. Keep the employment here, keep the sales here, everybody is happy about that.”

The flip side of micro distilling is that it takes a lot of time and devotion to get the business off the ground.

Some distilleries said that it can easily take two years to obtain all the permits and start the production. They said that Georgia’s alcohol-production laws create so many hoops for the producers to jump through, that the process can discourage many would-be distillers.

Another problem is the equipment. Independent Distilling Company imported its still, an eight-foot copper-covered machine that makes alcohol, from Portugal. Tommy Williams said it was hard to find such a still in the U.S.

On top of that, learning the tricks of the trade is a challenge. “There is no school or college where you can learn how to distill liquor,” said Bill Owens, the president of Hayward, CA-based American Distilling Institute.

Distillers in Georgia said that learning how to make spirits is essentially a trail-and-error process, where booze-makers give a shot to different recipes and learn through experience what works and what doesn’t.

“You put things in a barrel, cross your fingers, and hope for the best,” said Lindsay Cotton from 13tr Colony distillery. “You lose a couple of thousand dollars in corn and barley, and you say ‘we should do it differently next time.’ "

Distillers also said that they are not in spirit-making business just for money. They said making liquor is part of American heritage, a long-gone tradition that they bring back to life.

Some people would say, cheers to that.

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