By Brian Sherman
Todd Weiss was an athletic trainer. Steve Heilman made his living as a commodities trader. Jim Craig was in medical equipment sales. Johnny Pieper worked in the food and beverage industry, and Scott Blackwell had a long and diversified history in food service as well.
Today, seven years after South Carolina lawmakers opened the door for micro-distilleries to open their doors in the Palmetto State, these men are the heart and soul of the business of making whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, moonshine and related products in the Holy City.
House Bill 3452, passed by the General Assembly on April 23, 2009, and signed into law by Gov. Mark Sanford less than a month later, defined a micro-distillery as a manufacturer that distills, blends and bottles liquors with an alcohol content greater than 17 percent and that produces no more than 125,000 cases per year. More importantly, the law reduced the state license fee for micro-distilleries from $50,000 to $5,000 every two years.
The smaller license fee was critical for entrepreneurs looking to make their mark as distillers, especially in an industry that requires high-dollar equipment.
“You can’t start with less than $500,000, or you will probably fail,” said Weiss, a Pennsylvania native who has lived in the Charleston area for the past 12 years. “Even if you have $1 million, the odds are stacked against you as well.”
Blackwell, who is originally from Greenville, agreed that the stills, fermenters, condensers and other equipment necessary to turn corn and other grains into liquor can be prohibitively expensive, in the $300,000 to $500,000 range.
“And you need several hundred thousand more to get up and running,” he added.
In January 2013, Weiss, Craig and Pieper opened Striped Pig Distillery in an unincorporated area of Charleston County that is now within the North Charleston city limits. Weiss had been researching the possibility of getting into the distilling business as early as 2007.
“At the time, there was nothing like it here,” he said. “This was even before a lot of the craft breweries were started. I wanted to do it here. Charleston has lots of bars and restaurants and there are lots of tourists here as well.”
Weiss explained that Pieper also was interested in the distilling business. They were introduced to each other by Boris Van Dyck, who owns the building that houses Striped Pig and is also a minority owner in the business, as is Marketing Director Juliana Harless.
Weiss said he invested some of his own money and secured a loan from the Charleston Local Development Corporation. Today, the company produces vodka, gin, rum, spiced rum and moonshine. Striped Pig also makes vodka, moonshine and other spirits for other labels.
Striped Pig’s products are distributed to most liquor stores throughout the state of South Carolina and, because they are sold in a store in Washington, D.C., its products are available online.
High Wire Distilling Co., owned by Blackwell and his wife, Ann Marshall, has been open on King Street in Charleston since September 2013, though they started distilling earlier in the year. Blackwell, who has been in the food service industry since he was 15, started his first business while he was a student at Furman University, making and selling pies. He has been an ice cream distributor, a baker and a coffee roaster, and opened a restaurant in Columbia called Immaculate Consumption. He sold his organic bakery, Immaculate Baking Company, to General Mills at the end of 2012 and moved on to his next challenge: the distilling business.
“I wanted to do beer, but my wife had the good sense to suggest distilling,” he explained. “Beer is pretty crowded.
“Our approach is from a culinary standpoint,” he noted. “We’re not in the liquor business, per se. We consider ourselves to be boutique and specialty. We don’t encourage people to do shots. Our pricing doesn’t fit that model, and that’s intentional.”
High Wire distills two gins, three whiskeys and a vodka, and the company also experiments with products such as its Southern Amaro Liqueur, made from Charleston black tea, yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine and mint.
“It lets us spread our wings and show our culinary side,” he commented.
High Wire’s products are distributed in 10 states in the East and Southeast. Blackwell said he expected to produce around 6,000 cases in 2016. He said he would like to add another still and eventually reach the 20,000-case mark.
Charleston Distilling Co. has been in business since March 2014; Heilman and his wife took over ownership early in 2016. The company makes vodka, pepper vodka – made with the famed Carolina reaper – two gins, two ryes and bourbon that is currently aging in a warehouse on Johns Island.
“We are waiting until it’s world-class, then we’ll sell it,” Heilman explained.
Heilman gave up his job as a commodities trader because “it started to feel like a job.”
“I loved going to work, then all of a sudden, I didn’t enjoy it any more. I was looking for something fun to do,” he said.
Charleston Distilling’s products are distributed in South Carolina and Georgia. He said he’s hoping to help tweak the Palmetto State’s laws during the coming session of the General Assembly.
“You can have only 1.5 ounces for tasting now, and it has to be straight alcohol. We’re trying to make it so we can serve cocktails, so people can drink it in an environment they normally drink it in,” he said.
All three distillery owners are cautiously optimistic about the future of the business in the Charleston area and across the country.
“It’s growing, but there’s going to be some shakeup,” Weiss commented. “If you are undercapitalized or you make bad spirits, you won’t be able to make it.”
“It’s going to swell, but it’s going to correct at some point. There are a lot of guys who didn’t realize how hard and cost-prohibitive it is,” Blackwell said. “I’m seeing more and more used equipment for sale.
“The guys here are growing pretty steadily,” he added. “But if there are 10 more distilleries in three years, I don’t know how sustainable they will be. I don’t want to see people drink more. I just want the industry to be a little more diverse and interesting.”