Distillery Focus

Fit for a King

Jim Leggett visits the North Carolina's newest distillery to discover Kings Mountain Whiskeys
By Jim Leggett
"Some people believe that everything in moonshining boils down to the almighty dollar and who is going to get it – the government or the moonshiner. Some question which is the greedier of the two"

Sarah Quinn Hambrick’s sentiments of 1993 – ‘us vs. them’ – are the same today as then. Brings to mind those bumper stickers you used to see: “Do Not Steal – The Government Does Not Like Competition”.

I’ve swapped lies over many a jar with distillers, legal and otherwise who voiced similar viewpoints.

I wonder: could moonshine-making be in their DNA?

Three years ago there were only 150 micro-distilleries nationwide,’ blind-eying’ them as one needs to ‘know-a-guy-who-knows-a-guy’ just to get near these stills. Today there are more than 400, thanks to relaxed liquor laws, that and growing tastes for small-batch whiskeys, Bourbons and gins.

Mind you, I don’t enjoy Southern fruity concoctions, best described as Kool-Aid for adults and unloved mother-in-laws. They’d never fly in Scotland.

In contrast, Southern Artisan Spirits, North Carolina’s newest distillery, boast good corn and rye whiskeys I’d rank way above average. Their signature Cardinal American Dry Gin is something quite exceptional.

Secreted in an old textile warehouse, yards from railroad tracks, the distillery is but a train whistle’s wail from the historic Kings Mountain National Military Park, where a slaughter “turned the tide” of the Revolutionary War in favour of the American Patriots.

On October 7, 1780 American Loyalist and Patriot militias clashed in the decisive Battle of Kings Mountain –described as more a massacre!

Amidst ferocious assaults up heavily wooded rocky crags, swashbuckling Major Patrick Ferguson, a Scot, and the only non-American, commanded 1,000 doomed Loyalists. Shot from his third horse, his boot snagged in stirrups, dragged him to the rebel side.

Drawing a pistol, he killed another rebel before being shot to death, a dozen bullets in his body. Lifelong bachelor Fergusson was buried with one of his mistresses, ‘Virginia Sal’, a buxom redhead, also killed in this brief but hellish blood bath.

The U.S. Government erected a Scottish-style rock cairn over the gravesite however locals claim vengeful patriots disinterred Fergusson, stealing his bones for grisly souvenirs. His jawbones, so they say, are hidden in a townsman’s desk drawer.

Southern Artisan Sprits, owned and operated by 31-year-old twins Alex and Charlie Mauney, young men reliving past moonshiner’s ways, brew whiskeys much respected hereabouts.

“My brother and I started the distillery four years ago,” Alex explains, “We taught ourselves, first making wine in our parent’s garage. Then, wanting to make spirits too, we muddled through the required permitting process with federal and state agencies. Next we distilled test batches of gin, copying regional recipes from the 1700s, tweaking them, adding herbs and other interesting botanicals”.

Some 100 test-batches later they finally settled on their signature spirit, Cardinal Gin.

“It’s considered a modern style gin, Juniper is the main ingredient. You can taste the other botanicals as well.

Small batch whiskey depends on quality grains grown locally in Cleveland County. Water from the Kings Mountain city supply is filtered to remove iron and other impediments.

“At first our parents were a bit dubious”. Alex smiles, “But once they saw our passion for making artisan spirits, and tasted our whiskey, they became staunch enthusiasts, too”.

“Our Butcher Whiskey uses an heirloom corn named Bloody Butcher, a mix of Native American and Colonial Corn. In the field it grows bright red, almost purple.”

This label calls for 60 per cent Bloody Butcher corn, 20 per cent barley malt, 20 per cent rye. All whiskeys are released un-aged.

“Turning Point Carolina Rye calls for 60 per cent rye, 20 per cent rye malt and 20 per cent corn. The spirit is triple-distilled in our 500 litre copper pot still, yielding about 200 bottles per batch.”

Their Cardinal American Dry Gin is one of the most awarded micro distilled gins in the country, earning a 93 rating from the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago, the highest rated domestic gin, tying with giant Beefeater for highest in the world.

It later took a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2012, the only domestic gin to receive such status.

I never cared for my gins straight, until seduced by their 85 proof 42%alcohol/volume Cardinal. It has a pleasing nose, pungent hint of Juniper, slightly floral. It would be a sin to mix tonic or lime, as it might overpower a brilliant, stand-alone, ‘Sippin’ Gin’.

Turning Point Carolina Rye, named for the turning point battle, and Butcher Whiskey Rye- Corn-Barley named for sweet flavoured grains, are comparable to old time corn likker, cunningly blended in the Mauneys’ secret recipes.

Both whiskeys tender an interesting nose, hint of corn and notable alcohol heat as it goes down. Some like it straight. Others prefer splash of water, club soda, or over ice, considering the South’s brutal summer heat.

A Historic Cleveland County map hangs in the office. Old stills were dotted here, there, everywhere among the region’s stunningly verdant mountains, burbling streams and misty valleys. Mauney’s distillery the, only one operating legally, pays fitting tribute to Kings Mountain’s colourful past.