Jessica Dowd Crouch’s history with whiskey-making runs deep.
Her grandfather, Mitchell Dowd, was a moonshiner in Gaston during the Great Depression, making illegal whiskey to support his large farm family at a time when a crop of corn didn’t make ends meet any other way. Today, Jessica – along with her husband, Phil Crouch – are the Palmetto State’s newest craft distillers, operating their Crouch Distilling operation in a light industrial bay just down the road from Williams-Brice Stadium.
And while her grandfather’s illegal moonshining sparked Jessica’s interest in distillation and history, she doesn’t romanticize his trade. He made whiskey solely so his family could survive.
“We don’t say moonshine,” she said, leaning on the bar in the distillery’s tasting room. “Moonshine means illegal whiskey. We’re paying a boatload of taxes to be legal. So we call it bourbon, rye, sour mash and Carolina white.”
The Crouches, who started the business seven months ago, are the fourth micro-distillery to open in the Midlands. They are part of a statewide trend that promises to do for spirits what the micro-brewing industry has done for craft beer.
No economic impact figures are available for the state’s micro-distilling industry, which began in 2011 and now boasts 31 licensed distillers from the Upstate to the Lowcountry. But South Carolina’s craft beer industry now has 40 micro-breweries and brew pubs that pump $443 million into the state’s economy annually, according to a study by the national Brewers Association, and has created 3,000 jobs.
“Craft distilling is now where craft brewing was in the 1990s,” Phil Crouch said.
For hundreds of years in South Carolina and the nation, local distillers plied their trade free of federal or state regulation. If you could make it, you could sell it.
Even before Columbia was founded, distilleries dotted the Midlands, turning out liquor from rum to corn whiskey.
All that changed in 1920 with Prohibition, when drinking alcohol was declared illegal. Upon its repeal in 1933, the federal government began licensing and taxing beer, wine and liquor, and states set up individual laws regulating its sale.
Recent changes in South Carolina’s liquor laws have made it possible for small distillers to exist once again. In 2009, the General Assembly approved less restrictive regulations for small, local distillers – most importantly allowing tasting rooms and lowering the state licensing fee from $50,000 every two years to $5,000.
As a result, distilleries started to pop up – despite the hard work it takes to make liquor, the high taxes and limited outlets for marketing the product.
“It’s a heavy-duty manufacturing operation,” said Ken Allen, a Columbia attorney who for 30 years was chairman of the now-defunct Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. He now represents brewers and distillers.
“It’s heavy and wet and hot and you have to deal with all that,” he said. “But I’m seeing a steady growth. It’s definitely evolving.”
The drinking circle
Distillers hope the laws regulating their industry continue to evolve as well, much as laws governing micro-breweries have changed.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed the “pint law,” which increased the amount of beer customers can consume in craft brewery tasting rooms to 48 ounces – or three pints – from four 4-ounce samples. It also allows patrons to purchase up to 288 ounces (the equivalent of a case of beer) that patrons can buy in large jugs called growlers.
Since then, three craft breweries have opened in the area, all in Columbia and all within walking distance of Williams-Brice Stadium. Crouch Distilling decided to open in that area as well, to create a synergy.
“It’s the drinking circle,” Jessica Crouch said.
Richard Baker, owner and distiller at Copper Horse distillery, the Midland’s first and largest, which opened in August 2014, said some modification in the laws would make the industry more solvent.
He would like to see a distinction made between craft distilleries and liquor stores, which have to close at 7 p.m. and can’t open on Sunday. It would be nice to be able to sell mixed drinks in the tasting rooms, much as breweries can sell pints. And he would like to market directly to restaurants, instead of being forced by the “three-tier system” of producer, distributor and retailer to go through mandatory distributors.
Oh, and he would like to see the $13.50 a gallon federal tax lowered.
“That’s a big number to overcome,” he said. “And if people could come in and enjoy a cocktail, that would be great.”
The San Francisco-based American Distillers Institute rates South Carolina’s craft distilling laws a little better than average in that the state allows distillers and it allows tasting rooms.
“It’s a mixed bag of nuts around the country,” the institute’s vice president, Andrew Faulkner, told The State newspaper.
Faulkner predicts that South Carolina’s fledgling craft distilling industry and the industry nationally will go through an evolution. It will continue to grow, he said. There will be a thinning out process. And then it will start climbing again.
“Right now, the situation is so fortuitous that you can start a distillery, create a lousy product and stay in business for a while,” he said. “There’s that much demand. But in the end people are going to demand higher quality product and consistency.”
Faulkner noted family wineries that started after Prohibition ended in the 1930s and craft breweries, which started in the 1960s, “went through that exact same curve.”
Phil and Jessica Crouch hope the quality of their whiskey will pass muster with the public. They use non-genetically modified, transparently sourced grain. They don’t use refined sugar. They make everything in small batches with their own hands. And they don’t cut corners.
They are even feeding the spent grain to 24 free-range heritage hogs being raised on the Dowd family farm in Gaston, where Jessica’s grandfather used to moonshine so many years ago.
“It’s the same baby steps as the breweries,” Phil Crouch said. “And it’s DIY all the way.”
Midlands craft distilleries
Crouch Distilling, Columbia
947 S. Stadium Road, Bay #3
Copper Horse, Columbia
929 Huger St.
Dark Water, Camden
923 Broad St.
Yesternight Distillery, Lexington
711 E. Main St., Suite OB2, at The Old Mill