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Raise a glass for these 16 Southern booze businesses

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Last week’s DIG 500 gave you Southern-made cold brew, juices, and craft soda, and this week we’re back, barware in hand, with a roundup of Southerners in the business of booze. This is the land of mint juleps and moonshine, after all. And just like a good mullet, alcohol startups know how to mix business and party. According to TechCrunch, “startups in the alcohol industry raised $100 million in funding across 43 venture rounds in 2014.” We found 16 Southern startups that are sure to pack a serious punch in the growing alcohol and craft cocktail industry. So grab a rocks glass, realize that it really is 5 o’clock somewhere, and please, read responsibly.

  1. Scott Blackwell and his wife Ann founded High Wire Distilling in 2013 after Scott sold his organic bakery to General Mills. The distillery – Charleston’s first since Prohibition – produces high quality, small batch spirits using locally sourced ingredients. Their lineup includes the award-winning Hat Trick gin, along with whiskeys, rums, and vodkas. High Wire has been featured in Eater and the Chicago Tribune, and recently received a Slow Food Charleston award.
  2. Richmond-based Belle Isle Moonshine was founded in 2013 by three entrepreneurs on a mission to elevate moonshine from mason jar white lightning to a premium-grade, handcrafted spirit. The trio has raised $500K to grow Belle Isle, which currently offers original, grapefruit, and honey habanero ‘shine, all brewed in small batches using 100% organic corn. You can find Belle Isle in Virginia, West Virginia, DC, and online.
  3. Austin Cocktails was founded in 2013 by two sisters who wanted “cocktails that are better tasting, made from better ingredients, that are better for you.” The company makes premium, low-calorie bottled vodka and tequila cocktails using all-natural herbs, fruit juices, and organic agave – and they’re getting noticed. In 2014, their concoctions took flight on all Virgin America planes, they’ve been featured in Yahoo Finance and Southern Living, and they inked a deal with the #1 and #2 US distributors to sell around Texas, California, Colorado, and New York.
  4. Based just outside of Charleston on Wadmalaw Island, Firefly Distillery is the largest distillery in South Carolina. They launched their signature spirit, Firefly Sweet Tea vodka, in 2008, using tea from the nearby Charleston Tea Plantation. Firefly’s original and flavored tea vodkas have won several awards, been featured in the NY Times and Epicurious, and gained such demand outside of South Carolina that they partnered with sister distilleries in Kentucky to ramp up production.
  5. Durham Distillery is a gin and liqueur distillery founded in 2013 by two former scientists. They launched their first products in 2015: small-batch botanical gins and a line of “Damn Fine Liqueurs,” flavored spirits blended with ingredients from other Triangle-area businesses like Slingshot Coffee Company and Videri Chocolate Factory (we see one heck of a mocha in our future). In the short time since then, Durham Distillery has won North Carolina Distillery of the Year along with several awards at major spirits competitions.
  6. Also in Durham is Brothers Vilgalys Spirits, which launched in 2012 to bring Krupnikas, a traditional Lithuanian style of Spice Honey Liqueur, to the American market. In 2015, they added four new liqueurs to their lineup, all four at 60 proof, sweetened with raw cane sugar, and flavored with whole botanicals, herbs, and spices (we’re talking unique tastes like beets and orange zest or hibiscus and chamomile). You can get your hands on their Baltic-style spirits in NC, SC, GA, DE, MD, DC, and Chicago.
  7. Cathead Vodka opened in Jackson, MS in 2010 (and you may have met them at some DIG SOUTH shindigs). Cathead’s distillery is both the oldest and the first legal distillery ever in Mississippi, following the state’s strict prohibition laws. In true Southern style, they make honeysuckle and pecan-flavored vodka, alongside straight vodka and small-batch gin, liqueurs, and whiskey. Cathead has been featured in Eater and Huffington Post, and currently sells spirits across the South and in Colorado and Indiana.
  8. Nashville based Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was opened in 2014 by two brothers seeking to revive the brand their great-great-great grandfather originally established in 1870. How’s that for a Tennessee whiskey story? Their craft Belle Meade bourbons, sherry, and whiskey have been featured in Cocktail Enthusiast, Under the Label, and LA Magazine, and in another honorable ode to their heritage, the duo recently launched the Louisa Nelson Awards, which will celebrate women who are leaders in the Nashville community.
  9. Blue Bee Cider is Virginia’s first urban cidery, located in the heart of downtown Richmond. The company produces artisanal ciders on a seasonal basis, using rare and heirloom varieties of Virginia apples, and they’ve caught the attention of the Washington Post and On Tap Magazine. Blue Bee ciders are sold and poured primarily in Virginia, Maryland, and DC, but thirsty residents of a few other Southern states and California can order online.
  10. Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill Distillery is the only Green+ certified, USDA certified organic,and fully local distillery in the South. “TOPO,” which also operates an award-winning brewery and restaurant in the heart of Chapel Hill, distills gin, vodka, and Carolina Moonshine whiskey. Their spirits have all won rave reviews from Spirits Journal and Tasting Panel Magazine and garnered TOPO mentions in Huffington Post and USA Today.

With all this intoxicatingly delicious booze, you’ll also need a good mixer (or maybe you won’t – who are we to judge?). These last six Southern companies on our list will help you stir up a great cocktail no matter your bartending skills.

  1. Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. is a Charleston and Lexington, KY-based company that makes old-fashioned small batch tonic along with a variety of bar mixers (like sweet tea syrup and bourbon cocktail cherries – we’ll take another). Since launching in 2011, they’ve garnered extensive press coverage in outlets like GQ, Bon Appetit, and the NY Times. You can find Jack Rudy products at retailers and restaurants in 42 states (or snag a bottle or three online).
  2. Launched in 2013, Durham-based White Whale creates “Bold Mixers” made with all-natural juices and fresh herbs. Each one is crafted to blend well with a specific liquor, like the Skinny Dipper (you guessed it – tequila), and the Mob Man rye whiskey mixer. Their unique flavors (Siberian fir, black currant) and clever names have caught the attention of Food & Wine, Southern Living, Birchbox, and more. Find a retailer or get a bottle online here.
  3. Bittermilk makes handcrafted cocktail mixer compounds in Charleston, SC. Each product blends a bittering agent, a sweetener, and an acid to create a balanced cocktail. The company has received tons of press coverage, including features in Real Simple, Garden & Gun, and the Washington Post. Bittermilk is also a G&G Made in the South winner and a Southern Living 2015 Food Award Winner.
  4. 18.21 Bitters is an Atlanta-based, female-founded company that launched after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014. Their products include cocktail bitters, tinctures, shrubs, syrups, old-fashioned tonic, ginger beer, and craft cocktail mix, and they’ve been featured in GQ and Vanity Fair. You can grab a taste at their space in Ponce City Market’s Food Hall.
  5. Raleigh-based Crude Bitters is North Carolina’s first cocktail bitters company. Founded in 2012, Crude Bitters won a 2016 Southern Living Food Award and a 2015 Good Food Award for their small-batch craft bitters, sodas, and old-fashioned shrub soda syrups. The uniquely-flavored tinctures are available online and at retailers around the country.
  6. Last but not least is O& O Hooch, a DIG partner and Sullivan’s Island, SC-based company that makes a natural, bubbly limeade mixer to pair with vodka, tequila, dark rum, or gin. They’ve been featured in Taste of the South and Coastal Living and have poured drinks for attendees at events like the Masters and CMA Music Festival. Time to sip some hooch you might actually enjoy.

As it turns out, Southerners know how to host a good happy hour. There are so many emerging wine, beer, and spirits companies across our region that we decided to leave off breweries and wine makers in order to keep the list a bit shorter. Even so, we know we overlooked many others in the industry. If you know of a local libation we have to try, please share in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Austin Cocktails