It is Sunday afternoon and I’m driving to Kings Mountain, just south of Shelby, North Carolina. While Kings Mountain is known for its Revolutionary War Battlefield Memorial, it is also the location of an emerging industry in North Carolina. I am visiting Southern Artisan Spirits, a producer of North Carolina’s first legal gin since Prohibition, which began in 1919 and ended in 1933.
I came across this new gin while visiting my local ABC store. I’m always looking for new distilleries in our state and this one caught me by surprise. For the last several years, whenever I visit a new ABC store, I ask them to initiate a North Carolina spirits display section. The new ABC store in the town of Woodfin just put together such a collection to showcase NC spirits. Southern Artisan’s product is called Cardinal American Dry Gin and is packaged in a classy bottle with a cork top.
I located the Southern Artisan website and immediately wrote the owners an e-mail telling them how much I enjoyed their product. After receiving a quick reply from Alex Mauney, one of the owners, we started exchanging e-mails and then phone calls about how they got into the gin business. Alex is a bread aficionado and, like me, built his own wood-fired bread oven based upon the principles of Alan Scott. Also like me, Alex developed an interest in “all things yeast.” I really had to see their operation!
Upon arriving in Kings Mountain, I was directed to a light industrial section of the city and an old textile mill that had been in Alex’s family for many years. The mill closed 10 years ago and the Mauney family had been considering other uses for the building. Alex and his brother, Charlie, along with their father, Jim, had decided to look into the new trend of developing artisan products. Alex is in the construction business and is also the head distiller. Charlie was a poly-sci major in college, but decided to take a sabbatical to assist in the two-year struggle for approval of their new enterprise from both the Federal government (ATF – Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the newly-crafted requirements of the North Carolina Bureau of ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement). Charlie said it took a lot of paperwork, a lot of talking with fellow distillers, and a lot of helping local and state officials to understand what they were trying to accomplish.
Upon entering the building, I expected to see a room full of large copper kettles, mash tuns, wooden barrels, and something resembling a chemist’s laboratory. I was surprised at the sparseness of equipment and how well lit the large space was. Sitting in the middle of room was a beautiful copper kettle, a 100-gallon “Pot Still” production kettle that seemed more a work of art or museum piece than an actual manufacturing still. Alex said that this still was purchased in Portugal, and was used to experiment with fruit brandies and other product lines that they hope to bring out in the near future. Alex explained that copper is a porous metal and tends to retain the taste of the previous distillation batch, and therefore it was not used for their gin production.
Directing me away from this beautiful piece of equipment, Alex pointed to several large vats of clear liquid. He explained that this was a new type of distillation system, using stainless steel vats with an induction heater to bring the alcohol to an exact temperature, in a very controlled process. He then showed me the bottling process, which currently runs at about 100 bottles per hour. They produced about 5,000 cases in 2010 and hope to increase their production soon. In order to get their product into ABC Stores in the state of North Carolina, all alcohol must be shipped to the Central Receiving Office in Raleigh. We talked about the irony that State trucks deliver cases of alcohol to the local ABC stores in the Shelby area and return to Raleigh empty. Alex asked if they could ship their cases down to the Raleigh warehouse via these trucks, but that is not allowed due to regulations. Therefore, they have to arrange for private carriers to ship to the same warehouse in Raleigh!
Getting down to the business at hand, Alex started telling me about the process of developing their gin. They have an extensive group of friends in WNC and spent a lot of time soliciting ideas and testing new recipes. He started by researching the historical production of gin and recipes from the 1700s forward. They spent over two years developing their formula and have done such a good job that the gin recently won a Silver Medal at the International Spirits competition in New York.
He also learned that there are many styles of gin, and the style he was most interested in is called the “Western style.” When I first tasted the gin, I found it to be different from Tanqueray and Gordon, but similar to other Western-style gins such as Hendricks. The Western style is much smoother and allows the botanicals to flavor the gin and give it a more pronounced taste. The Western style also does away with the predominant taste of juniper berries and replaces it with the subtlety of other organics. While the Mauneys insist on purchasing ingredients that are natural and organic, many of those ingredients come from other countries and some are wild harvested. They are searching for growers in North Carolina who can supply many of their botanicals.
Once the 11 botanicals (coriander, spearmint, cloves, Grains of Paradise, and more) are added to the alcohol and allowed to steep or infuse over a period of time, the gin actually turns green. It is distilled once more to produce a clear and richly-flavored product that is then bottled. To find out more about the types of botanicals in Cardinal Gin, you really need to read the excellent article written by Mackensy Lunsford in the December 22-28 issue of Mountain Xpress.
Alex has a large collection of hydrometers, which are used with many different forms of spirits to measure specific gravity of the liquid and determine the alcohol content or proof of the alcohol. It is very important to certify the specific gravity of the product and to be able to balance the different gravities to reach the appropriate alcohol content. Cardinal Gin is 42% alcohol by volume, or 84 proof.
In talking about the bottle itself, Alex explained that the design was done by a local artist who used our state bird, the Cardinal, hence the name of the gin. The drawing is in a tribal style, similar to what you would find in tattooing, and the mirrored image of the Cardinal represents the fact that the Mauney brothers are twins.
Alex’s father, Jim, said that they were seeking to produce a gin that complemented tonic water with a fresh-cut lime. I think they have certainly achieved their goal! If you are downtown Asheville, stop in at Posana Café and ask the barkeep to mix Cardinal Gin with one of their organic mixes. Posana also makes its own ginger ale, which goes very well with Cardinal. Southern Artisan Spirits is researching a new provision in the North Carolina law that permits “tastings” at the distillery. When they are certified, you really need to plan a trip to Kings Mountain and check out Southern Artisan Spirits. In the meantime, visit your local ABC Store and ask for Cardinal Gin. We need to support them and other NC distilleries, and to celebrate their spirit of entrepreneurship.
Southern Artisan Spirits http://southernartisanspirits.com