It’s hard to believe that until 2019, the Wilmington area had no distillery.
Now, with three more in the works, it looks like another exponential growth spurt is underway downtown and Carolina Beach.
The first one that should open is Four Hounds Distilling. Max Sussman and Chris Stellaccio set up the distillery at The Veggie Wagon production facility on N. Lake Park Blvd. They have been practicing and honing their skills for years and are finally ready to share what they have learned with the launch of two rum products, perhaps as early as the end of the month.
Hunter and Misti Ford are aiming for an October date for Momentum Spirits in the Cotton Exchange at 318 Nutt St., located in the former Two Sisters Bookery location.
A distillery by Matt Karn, the man behind IZZYz Spirits and his signature rum, which he first released four years ago, is also in the works. He is also eyeing the city center.
Jeff Strickland, of the North Carolina ABC Commission, said he saw an increase in the number of distilleries across the state since 2018. That year there were 54 active distilleries, followed by 68 in 2019 and 80. in 2020.
There are now 99 active licenses for distilleries in North Carolina, he said. Only a few, including Mason Inlet, EOD Distillery and the makers of Blue Shark Vodka, are currently in Wilmington.
“Before Prohibition, North Carolina had more distilleries than any other state in the Union,” said Mark Bloomquist of Blue Shark. For him, more on the scene is a good sign.
“I think it’s great,” he said.
And each has its own niche.
At Four Hounds, the emphasis is on collaboration between partners. Sussman brings the skills he chose from working with Flavors as a co-owner of The Veggie Wagon. Stellacio gets by with the paperwork and the engineering. In fact, he developed a closed loop cooling system for the Four Hounds still that wastes no water.
He also has a love of rum which gradually developed on Sussman. One of their rums is finished in wood to give it more complex and toasty flavors. The other is also infused with port and vanilla.
For Ford, the former owner of Momentum Surf and Skate and Burnt Mill Creek Billiards & Wine Bar, it was recent legislation that made him think more about the possibilities of a distillery business.
The ABC Regulatory Reform Act came into effect in 2019 and lifted the cap on on-site bottle sales, and also allows distilleries to sell beer, wine, and cocktails.
Ford is having a copper still shipped to Wilmington and is planning a micro-distillery atmosphere, where people can come and talk about spirits and learn more about the process.
“At this location we will do the redistillation, fermentation and bottling,” he said. Other aspects of production will be carried out at another manufacturing site.
Ford also worked hard to get the right North Carolina-shaped bottles for its vodka. He also plans to make limoncello, orangecello and bourbon.
“I love limoncello,” he said. “And I can’t wait to offer a similar product based on orange.”
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Those who work in the company say it can be intimidating. It is expensive in terms of equipment, time consuming in terms of authorization and licensing, and difficult in terms of getting the right product.
Still, these distillers say now is the time to bring more artisanal spirits to the local market. Alcohol sales increased during the pandemic, and this fueled a trend for in-home cocktails that still continues.
“It’s all over Instagram,” Ford said. He believes a downtown distillery can make the most of a beautiful setting and the craft cocktail trend.
At Four Hounds, named after the number of dogs owners own, they plan to open on Saturdays for tastings and merchandise sales, with a portion of the proceeds going to dog rescue groups.