A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around

Where Spirits Rise

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around every bend in the road, communities with identities all their own remind us that our mountains contain multitudes.

You can’t miss it, the massive distillery that stands in plain view of I-77 north of Statesville. The 25,000-square-foot production facility, with its auto showroom-worthy windows, houses a pot still named Hey Baby, used for prototyping and small-scale production, and two custom-built stainless steel-and-copper column stills spiring more than two stories high. The original still, named Sweet Mother, is so tall that the very top reaches into a window-filled minaret that pops up above the roofline. Glass panels encased in steel run up the front like buttons on a dress shirt. The second still, named Little Sister, is a steampunk dream machine of shiny copper, sprouting metal pipes and conduits. Around the stills wafts the aroma of warm malt cereal as yeast converts grain mash into alcohol from inside 12 giant fermentation tanks.

Pete Barger, a Statesville native and owner of Southern Distilling Company, brims with hometown pride as he shows off his sprawling facility. Since opening their distillery in 2016, Pete and his wife, Vienna, have learned that producing high-quality, legal whiskey is something of a tradition in Statesville — one that began before Kentucky bourbon was a thing.

Copper stills turn out delicious spirits. photograph by Revival Creatives

“We didn’t know that history until we built the facility,” Pete says. “It wasn’t until the Statesville historical guy came to us and said, ‘You might be interested in these artifacts.’ We started uncovering all this stuff. Holy cow!”

The “historical guy” is Steve Hill, another Statesville native and owner and curator of the Statesville Historical Collection. A corner of his museum is devoted to the city’s distilling history, displaying items like old bottles and jugs, and tax and inventory records. “Statesville’s liquor history dates back to the 1750s, when a guy named Fergus Sloan came here from Ireland,” Hill says. “He’s credited with bringing with him the first liquor still.”

With help from an employee, Terri Jo Ireland, the Bargers scoured Hill’s collection and the Iredell County Public Library for anything and everything about Statesville distilling. Their findings provide a glimpse at not only a forgotten way of life in the Piedmont but also how quickly the industry’s trajectory — and our perception of it — changed.

• • •

In the 19th century, life in Iredell County revolved around agriculture. Along with tobacco, local farmers — many of them descendants of Scots-Irish and German settlers — cultivated fruit orchards and grain crops like rye. Yet the area’s rutted, rain-soaked country roads made it difficult to get crops to Statesville’s market in time. To keep unsold produce from going to waste and to earn extra income, these farmers did what their European ancestors had always done: distilled leftover crops into liquor. And it was completely legal.

“In those days,” Pete says, “you had small farm distilleries, and they might have been using rye, corn, fruits, whatever sources of carbohydrates they had, bringing in this disparate blend of alcohols.”

They’ve learned that producing high-quality, legal whiskey is something of a tradition in Statesville.

Using equipment, techniques, and recipes passed down through generations, rural families produced modest amounts of alcohol — which, unlike produce, didn’t run the risk of spoiling or bruising on the journey into town — that they then sold to rectification houses. These were large industrial facilities that would take the raw product and redistill it, which refined the alcohol before it was blended and filtered to create a uniform product.

In the early 1880s, one whiskey wholesaler advertised that Iredell and surrounding counties had 450 farm distilleries that sold to six rectification houses in Statesville. The rectification houses then shipped the finished products on the Atlantic, Tennessee & Ohio, and Western North Carolina railroads to Charlotte and Asheville before moving on to Atlanta and Cincinnati and ending up as far away as Alabama and New York.

“The railroad is key,” Pete says. “The reason this big industry grew up here is because you had everything you needed — grain, water, product. But the most important thing was access to rail.”

The Bargers hope to expand the agricultural side of Southern Distilling Company, having recently welcomed donkeys to the property. photograph by Revival Creatives

The railroad attracted entrepreneurs from near and far. People like William and C.S. Cooper, brothers from Wilkes County who began making whiskey under the name Laurel Valley in 1881, and Philip Barton Key, grandnephew of Francis Scott Key, who came from Maryland in 1883. The Statesville Landmark reported in 1884 that his Key & Co. shipped out two cat-loads of apple brandy in a day, an amount thought to be around 30,000 gallons.

Also in 1884, Dr. Julius Lowenstein, a dentist from New York, came to town intending to pull teeth, but found that he could make more money producing whiskey. Lowenstein & Co.’s Old Harvest Corn Whiskey was so successful that, around 1890, he was able to build his family a grand Queen Anne-style home near downtown.

Growing up, Pete attended Broad Street United Methodist Church next to the Lowenstein House, but it would be decades before he would understand the significance of the old Victorian. “We didn’t know who the Lowensteins were,” he says. “It used to be a funeral home and super creepy. We never knew they owned a rectification house and there was liquor being produced here.”

• • •

In the tasting room, Vienna shows off some of the historical documents they’ve collected, carefully placing slips of yellowed paper on the bar: A series of receipts from a distillery operated by R.L. Tomlin record his reports to the IRS between 1887 and 1904. Another weathered slip documents a sale to Key & Co.

“This is proof positive of how this worked,” Pete says, pointing at an address on the receipt. “This is a local farmer, Tomlin, right up the road here.”

It all came to a halt at the turn of the 20th century. “There was so much alcohol being produced here,” Pete says. “The Anti-Saloon League — the temperance movement — everybody came to focus their guns here because this is where production was.” In 1903, the Watts Act, introduced by Iredell County’s own representative Alston Watts, prohibited the manufacture and sale of liquor in unincorporated areas. The 1905 Ward Law prohibited production in municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents. In 1909, the Anti-Saloon League succeeded with a statewide ban, a full decade before passage of the 18th Amendment.

The Bargers have collected proof of Statesville’s spirited past, including IRS papers from the legal distillery operated by local farmer R.L. Tomlin around the turn of the 20th century. photograph by Revival Creatives

During that period, Statesville’s rectification companies closed one by one. Key & Co. shuttered the rectification house in 1901 to focus on his furniture business. Dr. Lowenstein founded the Norris Candy Company and moved to Atlanta. Others headed to Virginia, where alcohol manufacturing was still legal. But what happened to the farm distilleries?

“A lot of them just kept doing what they were doing,” Pete says. “They were just doing it illicitly.” The irony, he adds, is that the illegal moonshine for which North Carolina became famous was born in a place where a legal industry once stood. He believes that we lost something else when the state went dry.

“If you look at what Kentucky has done, Kentucky [whiskey] wasn’t a thing until the past 20 years,” he says, describing the mystique cultivated with the creation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999. “That has been generated by the folks in Kentucky. They created a brand — a Kentucky brand. We want to create that same brand recognition for North Carolina.”

• • •

To commemorate the area’s rediscovered history, Southern Distilling Company will release a whiskey under one of Statesville’s original labels, Hunting Creek — a rye, because that’s what was popular at the time. The Bargers don’t know much about the brand’s history, but they do know the stream after which the whiskey is named. It runs north of Statesville in an area where many of the farms growing the distillery’s grains are located, including Pete’s own family’s farm.

That farm is what sparked the Bargers’ interest in the alcohol business. After living for a time in Northern California’s wine country, they thought that a winery and vineyard might be a viable business for their return to Statesville. But after much research, they realized that craft distilling had a more stable business model. It also fit in with Pete’s memories of growing hay on the property as a boy. “We lived in town, but we spent every weekend at the farm. That was always something that my dad and I shared together — a passion for working out there.”

After opening Statesville’s first legal distillery since Prohibition, the Bargers say that the parallels between what they have now and what was once here are uncanny. Operating almost 24 hours a day, the distillery is on pace to produce more than a million proof gallons of spirits a year, making Southern Distilling one of the largest craft distilleries in the country. That’s a far cry from North Carolina folklore of moonshiners surreptitiously filling Mason jars with forbidden hooch.

“There’s a lot of stories in the beverage alcohol industry, and only a few of them are true,” Pete says with a chuckle. “The thing that’s really cool about this is it’s one hundred percent real.”

Southern Distilling Company
211 Jennings Road
Statesville, NC 28625
(704) 978-7175

Read more about the Foothills & Brushy Mountains:
Fearless in the Foothills

This story was published on Sep 26, 2022

Carrie Dow

Carrie Dow is a writer in Charlotte.