Barrister & Brewer bringing craft whiskey distillery to Durham County farm

Michael Sinclair, a co-owner of the new Barrister & Brewer farm distillery in Durham County, shines the wooden bar counter in the facility’s tasting room on Dec. 29, 2016. The bar top is made of magnolia wood from Orange County.
Michael Sinclair, a co-owner of the new Barrister & Brewer farm distillery in Durham County, shines the wooden bar counter in the facility’s tasting room on Dec. 29, 2016. The bar top is made of magnolia wood from Orange County. The Herald-Sun

Just on the other side of the Durham city limits, Barrister & Brewer is growing a farm — a farm with an expanding bourbon distillery.

Over the past year, co-founders Jonathan Blitz and Michael Sinclair have been building the distillery, located at 1212 N. Mineral Springs Road, and working on the years-long process of remediating the farm’s soil. It’s an ambitious plan that will expand production and the reach of the company’s whiskey.

That work is beginning to show its first fruits, as the first batch of bourbon made at the new facility heads to barrels to be aged.

Blitz and Sinclair founded Barrister & Brewer in 2013 and purchased the 22-acre farm two years later. One day it will have rows of corn and wheat along with blueberries for visitors to pick. It also gives the Durham-based whiskey maker room to grow and achieve its goal of being a farm-to-table distiller of bourbon.

Barrister & Brewer, a name that comes from the former professions of its founders, is the story of a habit becoming a career. The two met through a mutual friend in 2012. Blitz, a former lawyer, and Sinclair, a former brewer with Red Oak Brewery, hit it off immediately.

“We decided we could make some really good whiskey, and we’re going to plead the fifth a little bit on how we really got into that,” Blitz said.

They attempted to find outside funding to start the company, but after around 30 unsuccessful conversations, the two decided that Barrister & Brewer would be funded solely by themselves.

The company began brewing its flagship bourbon at a facility it shared with The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company, another Durham distillery located on Ramseur Street.

It was a cramped space, but, in 2015, Barrister & Brewer began selling Mystic to North Carolina ABC stores and distributed bottles throughout the Southeast. It has plans to expand to Michigan in 2017.

Barrister & Brewer currently sell two varieties of its bourbon: Mystic, bourbon brewed with a variety of spices that give it a slightly sweet taste, and Heart of Mystic, bourbon without the addition of the spices.

In 2015, they began looking to buy their own property. After ruling out industrial areas in the city, where most locations need expensive environmental remediation, and spots as far away as Angier, they settled on Durham County.

"We realized there was still some land that was suitable for farming and we said, ‘Jeez, why get an acre of potentially contaminated land, where, for the same price, we could get 20 acres of pristine land,’” Blitz said. “[We can now] control every aspect of production from the grain in the ground to the water that goes into the whiskey. Everything is ours.”

The land they now own still needs some remediation that will take several years to really prosper, but the plan is that every facet of production, save for some of the spices, will be from the Carolinas.

The well water will come from their land, they have a growing apiary and cornfield, along with other crops. The barrels, in which the bourbon ages, come from a cooper in South Carolina, and some of the crops they can’t grow enough of come from a farmer in Hillsborough.

But more importantly, the new farm gives Barrister & Brewer a public-facing location for its products — an important marketing tool the company can use to take advantage of a growing craft spirits movement that is beginning to mirror the craft beer boom of the past several years.

The craft spirits industry reportedly had $2.4 billion in retail sales in 2015, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 27.4 percent in volume, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. The demand for craft spirits now supports more than 1,300 craft distilleries operating in the U.S. today.

“Having our own facility is essential... the tours become our brand ambassadors,” Blitz said, adding that a 2015 law, which allows N.C. distillers to sell a single bottle of their products to visitors, will benefit the distillery.

The farm and distillery was officially up and running midway through December, and though both are still somewhat under construction, Barrister & Brewer are already scheduling tours for Saturdays. Sinclair said he is making plans to upgrade the distillery's two 300-gallon stills to two 1,000-gallon stills.

The first batch of Mystic, which took about a week to produce, now sits in barrels at the farm. Over the course of a year or two, it will ripen into the first bottles produced at the farm to be sold.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes