Planned Pittsboro distillery part of growing industry

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 06:05 PM

Wine-making was a hobby that got out of control for Andy Zeman, who is the co-owner of the family-owned winery Benjamin Vineyards & Winery.
After retiring from the cigarette making company Liggett Group, Zeman said he and his wife launched a winery on land in Alamance County near Saxapahaw. Previously, he said land was farmed for tobacco, and was also used as horse pasture.
This year, the winery had 12 different varieties of grapes growing on 6 acres, he said. It produces dry red and white wines as well as sweeter wines made from the native southern muscadine grape.
“It’s steady,” Zeman said of the business. “We’re not getting rich at it.”
To help expand, Zeman is now partnering to open a planned new distillery in Pittsboro. The so-called Devil’s Distillery is planned to use Benjamin Vineyards wines to make port wine, brandy and a rum-style spirit.
The other managing partner is Lyle Estill, a founder of the Pittsboro-based biodiesel producer Piedmont Biofuels.
The distillery is planned to open in renovated space in a building of the same industrial complex where Piedmont Biofuels is located.
Zeman said that he and Estill shared an interest in sustainable businesses, and he also had technical expertise to start a distillery.
He said he was a chemical engineer for a corn processing company, working with fuel-grade alcohol. He said he later worked in engineering and maintenance for Liggett Group, both when the cigarette manufacturer had operations in downtown Durham and after it moved those operations to Mebane.
Wine-making was something he did at home, he said. But he wanted to do it on a larger scale. The winery was licensed in 2003. He said the distillery was a natural next step.
Agnes Stevens, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, said the state has seen “steady growth” in wineries, breweries, and distilleries.
There are now 154 wineries in North Carolina, Stevens said. That’s compared with 98 as of June 30, 2010, with 89 in 2009, and 21 in 2000, according to a commission report.
There are 104 locations in the state with active or temporary beer brewing permits, Agnes said in an email, and 17 permitted distilleries.
In Durham County, there is one permitted distillery: Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Co., which makes a honey spiced liqueur.
While the company is not actively distilling alcohol on-site, it did need state and federal distillery permits to process and bottle spirits.
Founder Rim Vilgalys said the company is operating in a similar capacity to when it started, but he spoke optimistically about the company’s retention of customers and limited growth.
Vilgalys said local producers have to compete against larger companies and a variety of quality liquor products. He said he sees more and more local distilleries in the works. While he expects some of them to go under, he also said there is support for local products in the state.
“Especially in the Triangle, there’s a very strong foodie scene,” he said.
There are plans for new distilleries to open in Durham, including from Tyler Huntington, the founder of the Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom. He partnered to buy a building on Foster Street in downtown Durham earlier this year where he said had a vision for an event space, commercial kitchen and a distillery.
In addition, a husband-and-wife team is also in the planning stages for a craft gin distillery. Melissa Katrincic, a former employee of Burt’s Bees, said she and her husband attended a workshop and distilling course in Chicago. They have been working to finalize their still design, and also need to get federal and state licenses and permits.
“We want to be a part of placing Durham on the map for the craft distilling movement,” she said in an email.
At Devil’s Distillery, the plan is to make the fortified wine and some of the brandy using wine from the vineyard, as well as using fruits and other North Carolina products. Estill said the emphasis on local is one of the reasons he was interested in partnering in the project.
Chris Jude, head distiller for Devil’s Distillery, said the distillery expects to benefit from sales of fortified wine, which can sell more directly to the consumer.
While liquor can only be sold in ABC stores in the state, most of the fortified wine in the state is sold from retail businesses, according to Stevens.
They’re also hopeful that state lawmakers will eventually allow the sale of spirits to visitors who go on on-site distillery tours.