Opened in July 2014, Charleston Distilling Company is an independent distillery that produces craft spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey and whiskey liqueur) in small batches right in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. The distillery produced 12’000 bottles in 2015. Launched only two years ago, Charleston Distilling Co. has already won several accolades in the spirits industry, including silver and bronze medals for its King Charles Vodka (a corn and rye vodka), Jasper’s Gin and Calhoun’s Straight Rye Whiskey. Its range also include Carolina Reaper (a pepper flavored vodka), Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin (an aged gin, yes, aged) and Tolerance (a whiskey liqueur flavoured with ginger and cinnamon). I’ll get back to that later.
From the selection of the grains – locally sourced from the owner’s cousin’s farm in Summerton, South Carolina – to the bottling and labeling of the bottles, through milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, ageing and blending, every step is carefully handmade and supervised by a team of 5 people.
Charleston Distilling Co. offers daily tours (approximately 1 hour long) from Monday to Saturday with explanations about its production process and a tasting of its different spirits at the end of the visit. I signed up for one on my vacation in Charleston this summer via the website but walk-ins are also accepted.
The distillery is located on trendy upper King Street, a street filled with small boutiques, restaurants and bars. Its facilities are on street level and passersby can see everything that happens inside through the front bay windows. The building itself is beautiful with its its copper window frames, stools and bar top mirroring the copper stills and its wooden tasting table, bar and bar shelves reminiscing of the barrel material. Speaking of barrels: the bathrooms’ exterior is worth seeing as well. The amenities are hidden inside giant barrels!
Two couples and I sat at the large table of the distillery’s tasting room, where our guide told us about Charleston Distilling Co.’s history and spirits production. He then led us towards the steam heated mash tank. There freshly milled grains cook for a few hours in 200 liters of carbon-filtered water in order for the starches to turn into sugar. The obtained mash will then be cooled and pumped into one of the distillery’s six 1450 liters glycol-cooled fermenters. It will rest there for up to a week for the fermentation process to happen, i.e for the yeast to eat the sugar and create ethanol. Once that’s done, the resulting alcohol will be pumped into one of the two custom copper stills to be distilled and rid of impurities. It will then become pure, high proof ethanol.One of the stills is used to make whiskeys, the other gin and vodka. Whiskey will reach 100-160° proof, while vodka and gin will attain 190 °proof or higher. Compounds will be added to the gin and let to sip for about 18 hours to flavor the spirit. The gin will then be distilled again and sent straight to the condenser.
Once the spirits have been distilled to satisfaction, they will be be put into barrels or bottled in the distillery. The whiskey and the Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin will be barrel-aged in the warehouse. The manual bottling and labeling will take place inside the distillery again. The discarded mash residues won’t go to waste and will be given to a goat breeder as animal feed.
After these information about the spirits production, it was time to taste them! We walked back to the tasting room area and, this time, sat at the bar. We started with King Charles Vodka, a vodka made with corn and rye. The mouth feel was rather sweet thanks to the corn and the aftertaste spicy because of the rye. Interesting! We continued with samples of the distillery’s two gins. Jasper’s Gin was a citrusy, floral gin with hints of cinnamon and star anise. The first note was however of juniper so not really my thing. Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin is, as said previously, an aged gin. It spends 60 days in 6 year old bourbon barrels from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Cinnamon and star anise are still present but the coriander seeds from Jasper’s Gin original recipe have been replaced by lemongrass. It tasted less junipery so I liked it better than the previous gin. We then moved to the whiskey liqueur and rye. The ginger-cinnamon whiskey liqueur, Tolerance, reminded me of fireball candies. I had my dad bringing me kilos of those back from the States when I was a teen so, of course, I enjoyed the liqueur! We then tried the second batch of Calhoun’s Straight Rye Whiskey, the distillery’s latest product launched in April 2016. Built towards being a sipping rye, it had spent two years ageing in barrels inside the warehouse. The nose was reminiscent of Highland scotch whisky with fresh fruits and honey, while the tasting notes were of maple, caramel and spices. We finished the tasting with a sample of Carolina Reaper vodka, a King Charles vodka infused with Carolina Reaper pepper, the hottest pepper in the world according to Guinness World Records since 2013. What can I say: it was spicy alright!
I enjoyed the visit very much and, thus, recommend it without hesitation. It was short, informative and the central location on bustling King Street is ideal. I was impressed by the range of spirits the distillery produces. Remember: the team is made of only 5 people! Also 12’000 bottles a year is highly respectable, considering the number of staff again and the size of the distillery. I was tempted to buy a bottle of Calhoun’s on my way out but, as I was already cutting it close in terms of baggage allowance, I listened to the voice of reason and left empty handed. However, know that you can purchase bottles, apparel, glassware and other branded goodies at the distillery.