When Richard Baker opened Copper Horse Distilling in 2012, he knew all about South Carolina's long backwoods tradition of homemade spirits, aka moonshine. He had something else in mind.
"We don't do moonshine and, as nicely as I can say it, moonshine for me is an unfinished product," the Columbia-based distiller says. "One aspect of making spirits, to me, is aging. So we'll let others do their thing, and we'll focus on aged products. And that takes time."
That's not to say Copper Horse - located at 929 Huger St., Columbia, - and other SC spirits producers haven't carved out their own niche. Copper Horse's small-batch products - Old Mill Vodka, Copper Horse Rum and Bulle Rock Gin - are already in the marketplace.
But Baker says his distillery is just getting going. Coming - he can't say exactly when - is his still-aging signature bourbon, as are his other spirits made with local grains from Adluh Brothers Milling Company, home to a SC staple, Adluh Flour. Baker says of moonshine and his products, "That's like comparing cornbread (corn is the main ingredient of moonshine) to wedding cake."
Copper Horse also has a selection of "cream whiskeys" with such names as Pecan Praline, Chocolate Salted Truffle and Red Velvet Peppermint. Each "pays homage to the traditional Southern recipe flavors of the Baker family," the company boasts on its website.
"My grandmother, who's in her 90s now, made pralines for every holiday," Baker says. "We take cream and add our spirits. They're geared to Southern tastes."
Baker and Copper Horse are not alone in producing higher-end spirits in South Carolina. In Charleston, restaurateur and real estate developer John Davis Madison created Gentry Bourbon, named for his grandfather and for a racehorse once owned by the family.
Gentry Bourbon, according to the website, "encompasses the best of both worlds": Kentucky and Indiana, where the bourbon is produced by American Bourbon, and Charleston, where it is aged and bottled. The result is "reminiscent of 20-year-old specialty bourbons," the site says, but uses a patented process that "allows the bourbon to age and soften without years in a barrel."
The Gentry name also adorns a luxury hotel in Charleston's historic district. Gentry Bourbon - the distillery is located at 180 East Bay St. - is mainly distributed in stores and bars in Charleston, Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head and also available online.
Other SC craft distillers include:
Crouch Distilling opened its tasting room in May 2015. There, owners Phil and Jessica Crouch offer Carolina White Whiskey, Carolina Raw Rye, Young Carolina Bourbon, Carolina Rye Single Malt Whiskey and Carolina Sour Mash Whiskey. Jeff, who worked nearly five years at Anson Mills, which produces organic grains, homebrewed beer before Jessica gave him a copper still for a Christmas gift. "We mash and distill our own spirits in small batches (and) our whiskeys are aged on-site in our unique cooperage and bottled by hand," Crouch's website says. Spent grains are fed to heritage hogs at the company's Whiskey Fed Farm, with cuts of pork sold in the tasting room (open Thursday-Friday 4:30-7 p.m., Saturday 1-7 p.m.) at 947 South Stadium Road. Call 803.764.6839.
Palmetto Distillery in Anderson, owned by brothers Trey and Bryan Boggs, produced SC's first legal moonshine (an ancestor was a moonshine bootlegger in the 1890s.) The brothers have now added Palmetto Whiskey, with its distinctive bottles featuring an embossed Palmetto tree, honoring the SC Dispensary (1983-1915). The whiskey is 21 percent rye and aged using French oak barrels in small batches. Besides the distillery at 200 West Benson Street in Anderson, Palmetto operates a store in Myrtle Beach. Call 864.226.9917.
Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville also began by making moonshine but now offers Carolina Stumphouse Whiskey, Lewis Redmond Carolina Bourbon Whiskey and three flavored Whiskey Girl products. Dark Corner also produces gin, absinthe and other spirits. Founder Joe Fenten and executive distiller Paul Fulmer still hang their reputation on making "The World's Best Moonshine," but have won awards for other products, too. Dark Corner is located at 14 South Main St. Call 864.631.1144.
High Wire Distillery, at 652 King St., Charleston was founded by Scott Blackwell and wife Ann Marshall, and uses a hand-hammered, German copper still to create their small-batch spirits. Located in a 6,000 square foot warehouse with a 50-seat tasting room and views of the distilling equipment, High Wire offers Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin, Hat Trick Barrel Rested Gin, New Southern Revival Brand Sorghum Whiskey, New Southern Revival Brand Bourbon Whiskey (Four Grain), New South Revival Brand Whiskey/Madeira Finish and Southern Amaro Liqueur. Call 843.735.4664.
Six and Twenty Distillery in Piedmont, near Clemson, gets its name from Six and Twenty Creek, which was named by a Choctaw maiden, Issaqueena, escaping Cherokees to warn a British outpost of a coming attack (the creek was 26 miles from the Cherokee village). Co-founder Robert Redmond's great-great-uncle, Maj. Lewis Redmond, was a renowned Oconee County bootlegger. Redmond and David Raad produce two handcrafted whiskeys: un-aged, clear Carolina Virgin Wheat, and Six and Twenty Blue, made from blending Virgin Wheat and five-year-old Kentucky bourbon. The distillery, at 3109 SC Hwy. 153, is a former dairy milk transfer station. Call 864.263.8312.
Virgil Kaine Lowcountry Whiskey, owned by chefs David Szlam and Ryan Meany, like Gentry uses non-local bourbon (from Lawrenceburg, Ind., Distillery) to make its Ginger Infused Bourbon (using local ginger), Robber Baron Rye Whiskey (a rye/bourbon blend) and High Rye Bourbon. Spirits are infused and bottled in Ladson and available in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and New York.
SC's high-end whiskeys and other spirits are gaining reputations statewide and elsewhere, but as Copper Horse's Baker notes, "there's not a more competitive business than spirits. You've got to be in this a while; it's a marathon, not a sprint."
Fans of craft spirits, in the meantime, get to enjoy the journey.