EDGEFIELD, S.C. — When childhood friends David Long and Cal Bowie began tossing around the idea of opening a local craft distillery seven years ago, they were greeted with laughs and light-hearted jeers.
But the friends slowly forged ahead with their idea. Long and Bowie, both Clemson University graduates, trod lightly on the locally-uncharted territory of legal whiskey making, spending years researching the science behind the craft, formulating a business plan and navigating bureaucratic red tape.
In December 2013, the pair, along with Bowie’s cousin, Bill Hatch, launched Carolina Moon Distillery in a storefront in Edgefield’s town square. The investment the trio made in the venture was sizeable enough to make it a risk.
“It was enough to make us sweat,” Long said.
A year later, the gamble has paid off.
“Like any small business we’ve had our hurdles, but we hit our two-year business plan in six months,” Long said. “We thought that was a pretty good indicator of having a solid business.”
Carolina Moon products, currently ranging from moonshine to brown whiskey, are carried in about 20 South Carolina liquor stores, including Adam Howard’s North Augusta Wine & Beverage store on Knox Avenue.
In August, the package store started selling the distillery’s 80 proof and 116 proof “rabbit spit” moonshine as well as cherry- and peach-flavored moonshine and its Black Betty Whiskey. The prices range from $24.99 to $32.99 for a 750-milliliter mason jar.
“The moonshine segment right now is extremely popular and being that it’s local, is drawing a lot of attention,” Howard said. “Customers generally come in and just ask for it by name, or they’ll say, ‘Do you have that moonshine that’s made in Edgefield?’ And, I’ll point right to it on the shelf.”
Howard, who has visited the distillery and seen operations there first-hand, said he considers the 80 proof moonshine one of the best on the market. The 116 proof moonshine is the highest Howard carries in his store.
He said the unflavored moonshine is most popular with men at the store, while women prefer fruit blends.
He also stocks product in his store from Palmetto Moonshine, a distillery located two hours away in Anderson, S.C., and from breweries located all across the state.
“Anything that’s local, that’s here from the Aiken area, I definitely try to have on the shelf,” Howard said. “This is the first thing that’s really been distilled here.”
Much of the magic happens in the back of Carolina Moon’s storefront at 116 Court House Square, where curious and eager spectators are invited to tour the micro-distillery.
Barrels, bottles, pot stills and a wide range of equipment fill the rustic back room, and operations are soon to expand into the basement, Long said.
The business now has help from a still master, Ric Vann, and store manager, Martha MacDonald.
An average week at the distillery yields between 35 and 40 gallons of whiskey. The spring and summer months have so far proven busiest for the business, with one week last year generating about 100 gallons, Long said.
Everything used in the whiskey-making process, from well water to corn and fruit, is sourced locally. Even the grain left over from the fermenting process is given to local farmers as feed for their livestock.
The craft distilling industry across the state of South Carolina has been a booming one since 2009, when South Carolina legislators dropped the biennial license fee to $5,000 for micro-distilleries and allowed on-site retail sales.
Long said when Carolina Moon opened last December, there were only a handful of other businesses like theirs in the state. Now, there are 22 micro-distilleries registered with the South Carolina Department of Revenue, according to spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle.
Georgia has 16 permitted distilleries in the state, according to Jim Harris, head of the Georgia Distillers Association and owner of Moonrise Distillery in Clayton, Ga.
The trend is similar nationally. The American Distilling Institute shows the craft distillery market on a pace that doubles every three years. In 2008, only about 109 craft distillers were in existence in the U.S. By 2013, that number multiplied to 425.
The ADI expects to see more than 1,000 distilleries in the country by 2018.
Craft distillers are producing more whiskey than ever before, according to the ADI. About 64 percent of new distillers entering the market from 2012 to 2013 were manufacturing whiskey, the most of all alcohol categories. That number was up from 47 percent in 2005.
Long said pop culture has contributed to the phenomenon and competitors.
“The shows, all the country music,” he said. “There’s something about whiskey and moonshine in it. It’s just a fad right now. Liquor stores are being filled. The moonshine market, if it’s not full, it’s approaching full.”
Long said the distillery’s brown whiskey, namely its Ole Tom Whiskey, which is aged for at least six months, is the flagship. That product is currently only sold inside the on-site retail store.
To combat the competition, the distillery will expand to bourbon, vodka, gin and rum. Long said they’re just weeks away from bottling and selling their first bourbon product: Tally Ho.
A license allowing Carolina Moon to export liquor into Georgia is pending and could be approved within the next couple of months. But, as with South Carolina, the business partners must find a distributor first before any sales across the state border can take place.
Downtown Augusta bar owner Matt Flynn said he will likely offer his customers at Still Water Taproom a sampling from the distillery once it becomes licensed to distribute in Georgia.
The Broad Street bar already carries a rotating selection of Georgia and South Carolina craft beers, including those made at Westbrook Brewing in Mount Pleasant, S.C., Three Taverns Brewery in Decatur, Ga., Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, Ga., and SweetWater Brewing Co. in Atlanta, Flynn said.
“We definitely want to support our local brewers,” he said. “And tourists want to sample local fare.”
Supporting local business is also important for the operators of Carolina Moon. They carry a plethora of items from local artisans in their retail store.
“We want to bring people in,” Long said. “If we can get them to come see us, take a tour and then go eat at a local restaurant or see the pottery store, we’ve achieved our goal.”