Bottling Sunshine – Charleston Distilling Company

Whisky has long lubricated the wheels of history, and been lauded by poets and statesmen as “liquid sunshine.” Steeped in the narrative of the Holy City’s past, Charleston Distilling Company’s bright spirits shine a unique light on their founders’ adopted home.

Charleston is a city rich in history. From its cobblestone streets to its steepled skyline, it is a place that appreciates the rich patina that time has lent, and its unique blend of long-standing tradition and modern innovation draws visitors like a magnet.

Newly arrived from months of crisscrossing the country in search of a place to launch a new business, Steve Heilman watched a horse-drawn carriage pass below his hotel window in Charleston’s French Quarter, and immediately succumbed to the Holy City’s charm. Leaving behind a successful career as a commodities trader, and fueled by the discovery that his family had once been involved in distilling, Heilman had done extensive research on the process behind the business of spirits. He decided that he wanted to try his hand in the burgeoning craft distilling industry. “You’re going to love this place,” he said on the phone to his wife, Alison Curry.  From their native city of Chicago, she heard the sound of home in his voice. Arriving the next weekend, she too fell under the spell of Charleston, and when they visited the vacant 10,000 square foot building at 501 King Street, they knew that the search was over. Charleston offered the perfect trifecta – the good water they needed, a building with plenty of space, and a thriving tourism industry. They bought the building, and Charleston Distilling Company, the business he and his wife now run from the beautifully restored storefront in the hub of creativity and activity on Charleston’s Upper King Street, was born.

Locating two unclaimed, custom-built stills in Germany was a coupe that jump-started the business by at least a year, and seemed a sure sign that they were on the right track. The building’s 20’ ceilings provide the perfect home for the 1,000 and 2,000 liter copper vessels that glow against its original wood, repurposed throughout the distillery and tasting room. The Charleston transplants’ products begin with the best, South Carolina-grown corn, rye, and wheat that are milled and added to filtered water in a steam-heated mash tank. The resulting conversion of the grains cooked from starch to sugar is pitched with yeast to begin fermentation. Once fermentation is complete, the liquid is pumped into the copper stills. From there, clear spirits such as King Charles Vodka, with its sweet, peppery flavor, and Carolina Reaper, a smooth, corn vodka infused with Carolina Reaper Peppers, are bottled. With a reputation as the hottest in the world, the pepper created and grown in Fort Mill, SC helped Carolina Reaper Vodka garner a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for its blend of heat and sweet flavor. “It’s the distiller’s Super Bowl,” says Curry of the event that is universally recognized as one of the oldest and most influential of its kind. Entering their products for the first time, Charleston Distilling Company also walked away with a silver medal for Jasper’s Farm-Raised, American Style Gin.

For some of their spirits, patience is truly a key step in the process. Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin is placed in vintage bourbon barrels for four months to achieve its perfect balance of botanicals and mellow sweetness, while ryes and bourbons like Calhoun’s Rye Whiskey and Vesey’s Straight Bourbon take years to mature into “liquid sunshine” inside barrels of new, charred American Oak. Long anticipated, and to the delight of connoisseurs, the first bottling of Vesey’s Straight Bourbon took place this past October. Available on site in beautifully designed bottles bearing the iconic palm tree design of the historic Charleston Dispensary, each brand’s label pays homage to an element of Charleston’s history. Denmark Vesey, Sgt. William Jasper, and John Calhoun are all honored on the artfully designed labels that make the products as pleasing to the eye as they are to the tongue.

The rustic yet elegant tasting room offers a relaxed and welcoming setting for those longing to try a sip or two after taking the informative and entertaining distillery tour, required by South Carolina law for craft distilleries. Though the amount of alcohol per person is also limited by law, the menu of craft cocktails offered by expert bartenders is wide, and loaded with intriguing combinations of ingredients. From their usual perch atop the table in the center of the tasting room, Gunner and Lily, whose fame as “the distillery dogs” grows with each passing day, supervise the entire operation – basking in the adoration of visitors and adding a warm and fuzzy element to the space. The whole place has also become known as a special events venue, providing an inviting backdrop for parties, dinners, and other occasions.  Huge barrels built to house the site’s restroom facilities have gained their own notoriety, and were once rated the 3rd best bathrooms in America – a humorous, but much appreciated recognition, albeit one for a competition the distillery owners were not even aware that they had entered.  

Embracing the culture and pace of Charleston, Curry and Heilman are committed to using 100% South Carolina-based resources to produce their products – a testament of their allegiance to the state they now call home. Each brings to the table a skill set that provides exactly the right balance to their partnership.  Her seasoned sales role in Chicago’s corporate catering industry prepared her well to handle the marketing for the company, and her outgoing personality is the extroverted yin to the yang of her husband’s quiet and analytical, introverted style.

“We have a nice balance that works really well,” Curry says of the long hours that each puts into making the distillery a success. She splits her time between South Carolina and Illinois, the only two states where their products are available, and spends every weekend visiting the stores that carry their brand. Already, production has reached a point where they are quickly outgrowing the King Street space, and the couple has plans to expand to their John’s Island warehouse location.  

Embodying the spirit of the Lowcountry, Charleston Distilling Company has created a recipe for success that has one and all raising their unique, Charleston-made spirits in a toast to continued success, and to a brilliant future of bottling South Carolina sunshine.

By Susan Frampton