Drink Local: Atlanta Distilleries

This week, I wrote a roundup for Creative Loafing of the four Atlanta distilleries now operating. Between¬†Old Fourth Distillery, ASW Distillery, Independent Distilling Company in Decatur, and Lazy Guy Distilling up in Kennesaw, you can now stock a bar with Atlanta-made bourbon, vodka, gin, rum, corn whiskey, and more. Pretty amazing considering we had exactly NONE of that just a couple years ago. DRINK LOCAL, y’all!

I’d encourage fans of spirits and cocktails to visit all four of these distilleries, as all are up to interesting things, and their stills are all absolutely gorgeous (and all different). Below are some of my favorite outtakes, to give you a feel for the beauty in the stills. Also, be sure to check out Thirsty South’s full list of Georgia distilleries (not just Atlanta) and what they are producing.

Do check out the Creative Loafing roundup for more info, or comment below with any questions.

Old Fourth Distillery:
Old Fourth Distillery
Old Fourth Distillery

ASW Distillery:
ASW DistilleryASW Distillery

Independent Distilling Company:
Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur

Lazy Guy Distilling:
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling

Old Fourth Distillery and the history of Atlanta booze

Old Fourth Distillery Atlanta

“Atlanta’s distillery.” Right now, it’s true. Old Fourth Distillery IS Atlanta’s distillery – the first legal one we’ve had in more than a hundred years. Back in the day, before Prohibition, Atlanta was by all accounts a booming whiskey town. So booming, in fact, that the hand of Temperance came down hard and strong here, well before Prohibition blanketed the country in a fuzzy whiskey-wanting funk. We went dry. At least by the letter of the law. And no one in Atlanta could conquer the law books and regulatory red tape that pushed us down until Old Fourth¬†Distillery came along. I’m not saying they’re our savior, but now, thanks to O4D, Atlanta may rise once again as a hub of whiskey and spirits production. Rise. Up.

Old Fourth Distillery AtlantaRecently, I headed¬†down to Edgewood Avenue to chat with the O4D gents – Craig Moore, Jeff Moore, and Gabe Pilato. Their micro-distillery sits all shiny behind a welcome room packed with Atlanta distilling memorabilia – the old and the new playing nicely off each other. I knew about the vodka they were distilling down on Edgewood Avenue, the vodka¬†that has been embraced locally by leading bars like Kimball House in Decatur that have been eager for a truly local spirit to serve. And I also knew about the gin they’ve been working up for some time – testing and tasting until they get it just right (that gin¬†should be out before the end of the year,¬†just waiting on the government to catch up and approve the stuff).¬†What I didn’t really get until I visited O4D was the extent to which they have both embraced and literally built upon Atlanta history.

IMG_0240The bead board on the walls, the marble on the counter, the wood in the tables – it’s all repurposed material steeped in Atlanta history, whether from the very same building O4D now sits in (the bead board), or from the gutted¬†John B. Gordon Elementary School down the street that was built in 1909 (the marble). Jeff¬†Moore told me, “We want to protect those kinds of things from being forgotten. It‚Äôs part of our story to be related to this area, this city.” Moore¬†went on, and you could tell from his excited intonations that he digs into the minutia when it comes to rooting out the history of his building and the neighborhood:

IMG_0250The marble (on the table), that was once dividers in the boys’ stalls in the school, you can see wher the toilet paper holders were. This is actually the same exact marble that was used in the Lincoln Memorial ‚Äď from Tate, Georgia! We clad the walls with bead board that‚Äôs a hundred years old from this building, but also made displays with extra board that went out to liquor stores… and to now have that sitting in stores around Atlanta is very cool. We also used it inside out on the tables ‚Äď you can see the stamp of Brooks Scanlon Lumber Company‚Ķ if you‚Äôre a railroad guy, you know Brooks Scanlon… and you‚Äôd never find that until you pulled it off of our ceilings and looked at the back, and there it is. There are so many interesting stories like that.¬†The seats are old church pews from nearby. It was unbelievably fortuitious how all these things came together ‚Äď we didn‚Äôt have a design firm, we just let the materials we came upon help shape the space.

More important than the materials that have gone into the O4D space, Moore professed a strong connection to the story of distilling in this city:

IMG_0369We‚Äôve gained a connection to the lost history of distilling in Atlanta, being the first one in a hundred plus years to produce spirits¬†here. Atlanta could have been a hub of whiskey manufacturing, but the temperance movement came along and wiped that out, so to recall that history ‚Äď we feel it‚Äôs very important. It‚Äôs the first thing we talk about on the tours we give here at the distillery, and it‚Äôs presented in our bottle design, too. We have a lost history of distilling, but also a lost history of manufacturing things in Atlanta, and it‚Äôs really important to us to share that whole idea of purchasing locally produced goods.

Moore picked up his well worn copy of the book, Prohibition in Atlanta¬†(if topics like “Rowdyism, Snake Nation, and Slab Town”¬†intrigue you, go get this book), and started thumbing through, calling out interesting facts of Atlanta’s distilling history. The man digs his history. And that history makes its presence felt at O4D, which¬†houses¬†a significant distilling memorabilia collection and has more still under wraps:

IMG_0365This entire collection (on display) was provided by Butch and Debbie¬†Alley. They are prolific collectors of Atlanta distilling history, and this is the largest ¬†display of Atlanta distilling history anywhere. The interesting thing that you find is that we¬†really only know about the most prolific – like¬†R.M. Rose Distilling Company – there were others… L. Cohen; A. H. Harris; Julian; Meyer and Co.; Cox, Hill and Thompson… they were all operating circa 1900, but you don’t find hardly any information on them.¬†As we tell¬†the story in our tours, we’re always asking if anyone knows about¬†any of these, through a family history, or whatever – and it’s a very difficult thing.

Indeed, memorabilia from R.M. Rose dominates the collection – both in the numbers of jugs and bottles, as well as in the pile of printed material in protected sleeves that Moore keeps tucked away. Moore explains why Rose has risen to the top when it comes to the historical accounting of distilling in the area:

IMG_0359R. M. Rose was a pioneer in making sure that everything that left his facility had his logo on it – most of the¬†others had generic, unmarked jugs.¬†Paper items from the 1800s are hard to come by, but we purchased a collection and are trying to figure out how to properly display it and keep it safe at the same time. We have order sheets from R.M. Rose, and you can see all the things he was offering – not just corn whiskey, but gin, and brandy, and Kentucky whiskey, more. There’s a V.O.S. dry martini (bottled) cocktail. You have to admire their attention to detail (on these papers) – they clearly weren’t moonshiners as we think of it. That’s not how it was – these were businessmen, and they were big parts of their community at the time. “Ask the revenue officer,” (their slogan) was on everything.¬†Rose was a marketing pro, putting his name and face on everything, at a time when the temperance movement was nailing the coffin on his business.

IMG_0356Their manufacturing¬†was in Vinings, with¬†offices and a retail store on Broad Street, and his big warehouse was on Auburn Ave. Around 1907, R.M. Rose was forced out of Atlanta, and moved first to Jacksonville, Florida, and later to¬†Chattanooga. (At that time) it was not illegal (for consumers) to purchase spirits from¬†Atlanta, so they would send R.M. Rose a money order and Rose¬†would put a jug on a train for them (the consumer)¬†to pick up. And 1907 to 1917 was their most prolific time period to advertise to make sure Atlanta knew he wasn’t completely gone.¬†Right around 1917, the¬†kibosh was put on that completely and R.M. Rose soon filed for bankruptcy.

The R.M. Rose marketing materials and order sheets from that period before¬†1917 are simply fascinating, both from an historical booze perspective as well as¬†a marketing perspective. Here are some great tidbits from the marketing piece pictured above – “12 GOOD REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD ORDER FROM ROSE”

#4: More of our whiskey is prescribed by Physicians in Georgia than all other brands combined.¬†(It’s good for you!)

#8: We own more Old Georgia ‘Primitive Method’ Whiskey in stock and in bond from one to six years old than any other dealer in the South.¬†(Even back then, the good old days had their charms.)

#9: We have the largest and most complete stock of rare old whiskies, wines and brandies than any other dealer in the South. (And even back then, whiskey geeks chased rare stuff.)

#10: We have never made a misleading statement in any of our advertisements. We say what we mean Рand mean what we say Рand can prove every statement. (Truth in advertising Рand labeling Рwas worth mentioning, back then as today.)

#12: We receive orders from consumers from nearly every State in the Union, whocheefully pay the express charges. (These guys were not just for locals Рthey apparently played on a national stage.)

And based on an order sheet from that period between 1907 and 1917, the variety of goods IMG_0348that Randolph Rose¬†offered as a retailer was truly impressive, though they clearly weren’t distilling¬†the majority of it. Indeed, as happens today, it’s a bit hard to figure out what exactly was produced by R.M. Rose (who does call themselves “distillers”) vs. sourced from elsewhere. In the category of things clearly sourced, there’s California port and sherry, a Spanish sherry, a dessert wine of unknown provenance. Then, less clear, there’s a Lone Pine brand corn whiskey (“old-time corn whiskey at a reasonable price, with the flavor of real Georgia Corn”), and Old Woodruff brand bourbon from Kentucky, neither of IMG_0346which seem to be distilled by Rose. There’s Rose’s Purity – “for fifty years… the South’s leading medicinal and family whiskey… a perfect blend of fine old whiskies” – that seems to be a custom blend for Rose. Or Sir Randolph Dry Gin –¬†“distilled by my own formula… superior to the imported.” There are actually eight different rye whiskeys, one of which is Randolph Rose Bottled in Bond, which seems the most likely to have been distilled by Rose themselves. I’d love to be able to go back in time and sort out the distinctions between each of these, the most expensive of which ran for $6 for 4 quarts – roughly the equivalent of a $30 750ml bottle of rye today, adjusted for inflation. The cheapest spirit was, not surprisingly, the “mountain dew corn whiskey,” which ran for roughly the equivalent of $13.25 today.

IMG_0371Most intriguing¬†are the bottled cocktails –¬†Rock and Rye (“very fine in warding off colds”), Wild Cherry Cordial and Rum (“fine in case of colds or grippe”), Manhattan Cocktail (“made after my own recipe, and superior to the best served in high class clubs”), or Martini Cocktail (“an especially good article made with Sir Randolph Dry Gin”). All $1 each (equivalent to $24 today). What I wouldn’t do for a bottle of each of those to see how the folks were drinking in 1907, and what their benchmarks were when it came to cocktails.

In any case, the history of Atlanta-related distilling and booze marketing is fascinating, and the present of Atlanta distilling has the opportunity to recapture some of that long lost intrigue. O4D is paving the way, from their very prominent focus on the city’s rich history, to the fact that we once again have a legal still operating in the city. When I was meeting with Jeff, Craig, and Gabe, a call came in and they let me know they had to rush out – 45 barrels of whiskey were about to¬†be delivered, ready to be racked into O4D’s warehouse to sit for at least four years. Jeff wrapped up our discussion by bridging the divide between the Prohibition era and Atlanta’s future as a homebase for distillers:

We’ve worked to challenge some of these Prohibition-era laws that are still on the books today. There was no one asking before. And I don’t want to be the only distiller here (in Atlanta). American Spirit Whiskey recently broke ground (installing their stills in Atlanta), and we get calls almost every day from other folks interested in starting something. Atlanta deserves to have choices of locally made products.¬†We want this to pick up steam.¬†

Indeed, we do. Get your butt down to O4D to take a tour, soak in the history, and sample the Atlanta-made vodka and (soon, soon) gin. What are you waiting for? Was the past hundred plus years not long enough?

Old Fourth Distillery Atlanta IMG_0260 IMG_0275 IMG_0234


One Photo: Old Fourth Distillery, Atlanta

Can I gush for a second? I love that¬†Old Fourth Distillery has brought distilling back to¬†Atlanta. I love the space they’ve built out. And, gosh darnit, I love this photo from my recent visit¬†with them for a¬†Happy Hour interview for Creative Loafing Atlanta. I’m working on a deeper dive into what O4D is¬†up to, and their healthy respect for Atlanta’s distilling history.

Let it be known – the collection of Atlanta distilling artifacts at¬†their distillery is remarkable and easily inspires curiosity of our city’s pre-Prohibition drinking ways. More to come…

Old Fourth Distillery

Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka: Tasting Notes

Cathead Vodka

Note: This was written in 2012. Cathead has improved their Honeysuckle Vodka since.

I dig Cathead Vodka. I like the outsider art craftiness of the somewhat menacing looking cat on the bottle. I like the little-bitty blue cat heads on the backside of the back label that are visible through the clear spirit. I like that they “support live music!”(who wouldn’t?). ¬†I like that they’re from Mississippi and are doing something good in that state that could use more good things (tamales are my favorite very good thing from Mississippi). And I also like that they are the first company to attempt a honeysuckle flavored vodka.

For sons and daughters of the South, there are few memories of youth as fine as that of discovering a good honeysuckle patch and having an older sibling or friend or parent show you the precious prize that rests within each little flower. You mean there’s more to that messy bush of tiny flowers than just an intoxicating aroma? Then you try one – plucking a honeysuckle flower off the vine, carefully clipping off the end and pulling the stamen on through the flower, hoping and praying that your bit of effort results in a big blob of honeysuckle nectar, then seeing that drop emerge on the end of the string and dipping it onto your tongue. Ahhh, a too tiny touch of heaven.¬†You can see why I might be excited at the prospect of a good honeysuckle flavored spirit – the mystical honeysuckle is engrained in my memories.

And I had reason for hope, too, knowing that Cathead Vodka makes a good Southern product, having purchased a bottle of their regular vodka a few months ago at H&F Bottle Shop here in Atlanta. Well, the Cathead Honeysuckle is now hitting store shelves. The company was kind enough to share a bottle with me for tasting purposes.

The first thing I noticed was that the label sports a smaller cathead, now in gold, missing its eyes and nose and mouth. And I do miss those features, the angry air they lent its older brother cat. The Honeysuckle clocks in at 70 proof, a notch below the standard Cathead Vodka’s 80 proof, so you can say there’s more missing than just the eyes and nose and mouth. So how does it taste? Has Cathead been able to put the essence of springtime in the South into a bottle of vodka?

Let us see. On to the tasting notes:

Cathead Honeysuckle Flavored Vodka
70 Proof
Approx. $20 Retail

My hopes for magic in a bottle are dashed as soon as I sniff this. ¬†At 70 proof, the nose is amazingly like rubbing alcohol, cheap vodka, something you might have turned down back in college. Yes, there is some honeysuckle in there, but it’s buried so deep under fumes and a bandaid plasticity you don’t want to look for it.¬†On the palate, layers of sharp burn and cloying sweetness duke it out, with none of the delicate beauty that honeysuckle should display. There’s also a literal lip-tingly burn to it.

The fact that Cathead’s regular vodka is so nice makes this all the more confounding. And the Honeysuckle is just 70 proof? Cathead was on to something when they lowered the alcohol in the Honeysuckle, but they didn’t go far enough if they want anyone to enjoy this out of the bottle. And maybe that’s the point – this cries out for mixing, but it didn’t have to be so.

Sure enough, when a good bit of water is added, the alcohol heat is washed away, kind of like the cool that comes after a storm. The delicate floral notes start to emerge more seamlessly. It even turns into a decent sipper, smooth and clean, with a small amount of sharp sweetness that isn’t quite in the league of honeysuckle, but pleasant nonetheless. There’s plenty of room to use this in cocktails, with pineapple juice sounds nice, or even some dry vermouth in larger than normal proportion to the vodka. But does it capture the pleasure of honeysuckle like sweet tea vodka does for sweet tea? Not even close.

I hate to put out a bad review. Especially on a brand I like. (Thankfully) I doubt they’ll lose any sales because of this, but Cathead Honeysuckle just doesn’t cut it. Hopefully they can improve upon the formula – I’m still eager for a spirit that does honeysuckle right. Verdict?¬†Avoid.¬†If you’re looking for something with a lovely floral profile not unlike honeysuckle that will work great in cocktails, check out St. Germain elderflower liqueur. Or, better yet, head down to your local honeysuckle bush and have at it!


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow¬†‚Äď among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent¬†‚Äď exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff¬†‚Äď solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair¬†‚Äď fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid¬†‚Äď move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Bottle provided as tasting sample for this review.

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.