High Wire Distilling, South Carolina Rum and Watermelon Brandy

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

Whenever I see ratings from magazines like Whisky Advocate on spirits that are basically impossible to find, I impulsively groan. Why do they bother telling us how great these things are that 99.999% of us will never get to taste? It just further fuels the imbalance in supply and demand. But, you know what, I’m about to do the same thing they do – tell you about two spirits that are almost impossible to find. Why? Because they are unique and interesting, and because hearing about them might lead you to check out the very cool craft distillery that is making them.

I’m talking about High Wire Distilling Company in Charleston, South Carolina. I tasted their lineup last year and came away impressed, especially with their sorghum whiskey. Not long after, I saw that High Wire was¬†doing their annual¬†limited holiday release of a couple spirits – a rum they dubbed “Lowcountry Agricole” made with South Carolina sugar cane, and a watermelon brandy made from one particular type of¬†heirloom watermelon grown on one single farm. The¬†limited releases¬†were pricey ($79.99 each), but I had heard and experienced enough about High Wire to give me confidence in the purchase. And¬†I have to admit, the¬†minuscule amount of each that was made (only 164 bottles! of the rum, and 259 bottles of brandy) simply added to the allure.

You’re not going to find these on a liquor store shelf, nor are you likely to find them in a bar, but hearing about them will hopefully pique your interest in the cool things one little distillery is doing on the¬†“drink local” front in Charleston. And, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to secure a bottle of whatever they turn out¬†later this year as their new limited releases. Co-founder Ann Marshall tells me the next release of the South Carolina rum is in barrel, made¬†from sugar cane that was harvested in November in Darlington, South Carolina (a different farm than last year). And on the watermelon brandy front, they will be using the same variety/farm this coming year, though¬†those watermelons are still just dirt and seed at this point. The other big news from High Wire is that their Jimmy Red Corn straight bourbon, which has been resting in barrel, will also be coming out as a limited release just in time for¬†the holidays.

Back to the two bottles I procured this past holiday season, here are my tasting notes, along with a brief description from the distillery:

High Wire Distilling Company Watermelon Brandy
80 Proof
Distilled July 23, 2015, rested 4 months (not in barrel)
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: A storied spirit with a cult following, this Watermelon Brandy is distilled from the fermented juice of almost 300 Charleston Gray watermelons. The Charleston Gray varietal is the direct descendant of the famed Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon and was originally cultivated right here in Charleston. Sweet and distinctive, this brandy boasts a light and fruit forward flavor with soft, vegetal undertones. We recommend serving slightly chilled and neat. Only 259 bottles produced!

My notes: It’s funny, looking at this water-clear spirit and then sniffing it, my first impression was that it reminded me an awful lot of an unaged corn whiskey. The first notes that hit me were corn silk and a malty, grainy note. But right underneath that, especially towards the end of a good long whiff, there was indeed a subtle hint (OK, maybe a nudge) of watermelon. It does not whack you in the hand with watermelon (thank goodness, that would hurt), but once you look for it, it’s clearly there.

Sipping neat, the brandy is indeed light and subtle. You wouldn’t confuse it for vodka, but it does have kind of a pure, clarity to it that defies definitive description in terms of particular fruits (the watermelon is more present on the nose). The malty note becomes a bit more yeasty here, in a nice way. And the finish is long, warm, tingles the tongue.

Over ice, the nose doesn’t change much vs. neat, though the malt/grain note is a bit stronger. Sipping, the body is a bit more lush, as is typical with brandy over ice,¬†and the biggest distinction is that a green vine note (rind?) comes in stronger

Intriguing stuff and totally unique, though I do wish the watermelon fruit were a bit more present in the final product.

High Wire Distilling¬†Company “Lowcountry¬†Agricole” Rum
80 Proof
Distilled December 5, 2014, barrel rested 12 months
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: Our Lowcountry Agricole is developed in the true style of the famous French West Indies rhum makers. Distilled at a very low proof from the juice of fresh-pressed sugar cane grown in St. George, SC by farmer, Manning Bair, and barrel rested for 12 months, our rhum agricole has a complex, earthy flavor with an incredibly long, sweet finish. A true terroir spirit, our rhum agricole is only the second true agricole made in the United States. Serve neat or with a single ice cube. Only 164 bottles produced!

My notes:¬†The color of rich hay, this rum has an elegant nose that’s easy on the sugar – light vanilla, light caramel, a whiff of banana bread baking off in the distance, and some soft floral grassy-ness. It’s really quite lovely, and shapeshifting over time, with the time in the barrel providing a fleeting¬†mellow bourbon character.

Sipping neat, again the sweetness is subdued compared to typical rums, and the herbal aspects of the sugar cane comes out more prominently (as with rhum agricoles) over the top of a funky (almost barnyardy) bass note. The year of aging has given this a nice balance of sharp, young assertiveness and smooth, vanilla depth. It’s not nearly as grassy-green as most¬†Caribbean rhum auricles, but you certainly get the family resemblance. It makes me wonder how different South Carolina sugarcane is from what you’d find in the fields of Martinique.

Over ice, the earthy grassy elements dial up, and the sugar sweetness remains in check. In the hands of a good bartender, this could make some really interesting cocktails, though it doesn’t quite fit the mold of what you’d typically do with either a young rum or a traditional rhum agricole.

Fascinating spirit, and, like the watermelon brandy, one you’re not going to duplicate anywhere other than South Carolina.

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

More info on High Wire’s limited releases at¬†Charleston’s The Post & Courier.

Small Batch Tonic from Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., Charleston

I love a gin and tonic. There are few cocktails whose spirit and mixer come together so seamlessly to produce a greater sum. Most places use good ole Canada Dry as the “T” in the G&T. Not bad. At home, I most often use Fever-Tree, which suits me to a T. Roughly, Fever-Tree is to Canada Dry as Plymouth Gin is to Beefeater Gin. Elevated, refined, both intense and balanced at once. ¬†But now, though, there’s a Southern artisan tonic that will be pushing aside the Fever-Tree in my cabinet. Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., out of Charleston, South Carolina, has introduced a small batch concentrated tonic syrup that merits inclusion in any bar, north or south. It’s not easy to find – in Atlanta, Star Provisions got some in recently – but you can order directly from the Jack Rudy website.

What you’ll notice is that the Jack Rudy tonic is not carbonated – it is a syrup built from cane sugar, orange peel, lemongrass and quinine. You get to control its strength by the amount of club soda you add in to your cocktail, which is a delightful freedom for cocktail tinkerers everywhere. I recently received a bottle of the Jack Rudy tonic and have been playing with gin and tonics, as well as drinking it simply mixed with club soda to better gauge the flavor profile. Compared to Fever-Tree, the Jack Rudy mixed with club soda has more body, more of a grassy herbal quality, and an almost gingery depth. Fever-Tree is more bracing, a bit more clean, though with a quinine bite that is assertive. For drinking by itself (why oh why would one do this when gin is close at hand?), I actually prefer the Fever-Tree; but once gin enters the equation….

In a Plymouth gin and tonic, the Jack Rudy really comes alive. Gin and tonic do go together so nicely, and Jack Rudy’s flavor profile and body simply works wonders in this combination. Somehow, the Jack Rudy produces a cleaner G&T than the Fever-Tree, a more exotic layering of citrus and herbs and sweetness. And what does “clean” mean? That’s a tough one… to me it represents a middle ground between sharp and smooth, a clarity of flavor. With the Fever-Tree G&T, the citrus notes, both lemon and lime, come prominently to the forefront, and there is both a definitive sweetness AND a more pronounced quinine bite than in the Jack Rudy G&T. Great drinks both, and fascinating to contrast them, but the Jack Rudy takes the lead.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for a “proper gin and Rudy” if you were wondering:

Enjoy, and check out some other recipes that make great use of this artisan cocktail tonic.

A White Elephant at The Gin Joint, Charleston

There was one primary cocktail destination (OK, and a few secondary destinations as well) on our recent visit to Charleston – The Gin Joint – and the experience did not disappoint. Their cocktail menu is creative, diverse and expansive. The feel is that of a comfortable, modern take on the speakeasy. The service is knowledgable and friendly. And the drinks are perfectly executed.

A local friend had recommended one particular cocktail that The Gin Joint is known for – their “White Elephant.” There’s no relation here to the White Elephant that features vodka and creme de cacao; owner/bartender Joe Raya informed us that this one is a twist on the classic Hemingway¬†daiquiri¬†which had its origins in 1930’s era Havana at one of Hemingway’s haunts, the El Floridita Bar. The twist in The Gin Joint’s drink is that it replaces white rum with a tequila blanco, and the name comes from Hemingway’s book titled “Hills Like White Elephants.” That book is set in Spain, but it’s the Mexican tequila that sets this drink apart – our version included Espolon Tequila Blanco, which lends an earthiness to the drink that balances the sweet citrus incredibly well. The other key ingredient is Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur – accept no substitutes!

Here you go, The Gin Joint’s recipe for a White Elephant, followed by some photos to give you a feel for this great little bar in Charleston, South Carolina.

The White Elephant
1.5 oz tequila blanco, such as Espolon
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Shake all ingredients well over crushed ice, strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry if desired.

A Visit to Wadmalaw Island: Firefly Distillery

Wadmalaw Island sits a bit south of Charleston, ¬†bordered by Bohicket Creek and the North Edisto River, dotted with live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss, home to America’s only tea plantation, as well as a little distillery called Firefly.

Firefly Distillery is not well marked. You’re highly unlikely to happen upon it, as it sits near the end of a long road on the way to nowhere, towards the end of Wadmalaw Island. The local authorities won’t even let Firefly put up signs to help alert some of the visitors to nearby Kiawah or Seabrook Island that a distillery is just down the road. That is often the nature of being a distillery in the South, a tug of war between being a blessing on AND a pariah to the local community at the same time. So, Firefly is a destination for seekers, those who love their sweet tea vodka, or who have heard of their delicious Sea Island rums, or, maybe, those who are simply seeking a fascinating peek into the mind of a mad scientist out in the islands of South Carolina’s low country.

Jim Irvin is the mad scientist behind Firefly. He started making muscadine wine out on Wadmalaw over a decade ago, but really found his calling when he partnered with Scott Newitt and came up with the idea of a Southern sweet tea vodka using tea from the nearby plantation – the only tea plantation in the United States. Jim is clearly a restless tinkerer – his liquor stills look like something out of a high school science project gone grand and the grounds of the distillery are dotted with experiments in the making, stevia plants and multiple hops varieties growing in the garden, barrels aging, antique machinery being tested. That experimentation is paying off in the form of some wonderful products that can be sampled at the Firefly tasting room – a bracingly tart lemonade vodka, a rich and warming coffee spiced rum, and, of course, their line of sweet tea vodkas.

Before we hit the tasting room, Jay MacMurphy, who runs the daily operations at the distillery, showed us around the grounds: the beautiful muscadine vines set amongst the oaks, the garden overflowing with stevia and hops and fruit, that science project of a still, the hand-labeling of bottles. Kids will love visiting with the animals – goats and pigs and chickens and rabbits eager for a visit.

As you head into the operations areas of the distillery, it’s clear that the actual production here in Wadmalaw is small: micro-distillery batches of up to 500 gallons at a time. The big volume stuff – the main line of sweet tea vodkas – is handled on dedicated equipment in Kentucky by the Sazerac Company. Wadmalaw takes care of the limited releases and the Sea Island rums, many of which you can only find at the distillery itself or in South Carolina. The barrel aging room is small and warm, the better to encourage the interaction of the wood and the spirits. The “lab” is a nook of equipment and test batches, notes scribbled all over the place. And those stills… they are a science lover’s take on the distillation process, no elegant copper domes in sight. It all shows that this is a place built on passion.

On to the tasting room, where $6 gets you a sampling of their products and your own Firefly shot glass. The highlight is the ability to try some things you’re not likely to find at home: the limited Sea Island sugar cane rums (which are planned to get distribution in Georgia in the near future), Firefly’s “handcrafted” vodka (no tea, just vodka), and their lemonade vodka which can only be bought at the distillery. These are all excellent products and you will likely find it hard to leave without a bottle or two (we took home a few bottles of spiced rum and Java rum).

As you happily leave the tasting rooms, the South Carolina sun soaks through the oaks and Spanish moss, and you realize again that Firefly sits in a special place. Firefly’s sweet tea vodka may be found all over the country now, but Wadmalaw Island is its home, and it’s a magical place to be, even if it’s just for an hour or two.


The donkey-powered sugar cane press, chewing up sugar cane

The “science project gone grand”

The lab of the mad scientist

Barrels from Buffalo Trace for aging Sea Island rum

Sea Island Rum in the tasting room

The muscadine vines surrounded by oak and moss


Read our tasting notes for the Sea Island Spice Rum and Java Rhum

Full Disclosure: Our tasting room visit at Firefly Distillery was complimentary.