Delicious Regional Connection is Crafted in the Southern Carolina Region
July 21, 2022
Laura McKenzie-VISTA Volunteer/SouthernCarolina Alliance
Delicious Regional Connection is Crafted in the Southern Carolina Region
By Laura J. McKenzie
VISTA volunteer / SouthernCarolina Alliance
A first cool sip of bourbon seems like such a simple action. As the liquid passes over your lips, the aroma teases your nose and tastebuds, allowing you to savor the truly complex flavors.
In the Southern Carolina region, a partnership between two local industries is key to crafting those flavors. South Carolina Oak to Barrel in Bamberg and Burnt Church Distillery in Bluffton are working together to create a better sipping experience using almost all South Carolina products.
“Official federal standards require that bourdon must contain at least 51 percent corn mash and be aged in a new, charred white oak barrel, and be aged at least two years,” explains David Burt, chief operating officer for South Carolina Oak to Barrel. “Pretty much you have moonshine going into the barrel.”
Critical to the distilling process is the toasting and charring profiles of the barrels.
Toasting impacts the flavor profile while the char determines color, flavor and filtration of the liquid, Burt explained.
Toasting is a slower process, similar to baking bread that uses radiant heat to turn the oak from white to a more caramel color. It penetrates the wood that will eventually enhance flavors.
Charring, he explained, is exactly that – burning the inside of the barrel from levels of a light char to ‘alligator scales’ at the top level.
“We’ll make it however you want,” said Burt. “The amount of toasting and charring is determined by the customer’s recipe and beliefs.”
Burt said the demand for bourbon is “exploding’ with the industry expected to multiply 10 percent annually for the next 10 years.
Attorney Dagney Johnson, who opened South Carolina Oak to Barrel, brought in an Alabama investment group to purchase the former Blackwater Barrels facility in Bamberg, which is the first and only cooperage in the state. This gave Johnson and Burt the opportunity to enter the market instantly while perfecting the barrel-making craft on a small scale before making plans to expand their operations.
Each barrel is crafted from white oak slats and metal rings. No glue is involved. Each barrel is tested with water and air pressure to discover any defects and prevent leaking.
South Carolina Oak to Barrel now employs 19 people and produces between 64 and 80 barrels a day, said David Hutto, Head of Operations. The company is projected to create a total of 122 jobs within their first five years of operation.
They currently supply 25 to 30 distilleries in the United States and at least one internationally. Some produce bourbon, others whiskey. Each barrel is marked with the distillery’s logo as well as the toasting and charring profile of the individual barrel.
The partnership with Burnt Church Distillery started with one barrel, said Burt. “They had been using 15- to 20-gallon small batch barrels. We crafted one of our 53-gallon barrels with their logo on it and presented it to Peter Thompson, the distiller for Burnt Church Distillery. He filled the barrel with their recipe, tested it and had excellent taste ratings for the product.”
South Carolina Oak to Barrel now has an annual contract and both companies enjoy providing truly South Carolina products.
The proximity of the companies saves both of them time and money in shipping costs as well as boasting of Palmetto pride.
Burnt Church Distillery is the brainchild of brothers Billy and Sean Watterson. Watterson Brands is a successful blend of entrepreneurial endeavors whose overall goals include “innovation, integrity, passion and access”.
According to the company, “A true entrepreneur, Billy has founded many brands over the past 20 years. When he discovered the Lowcountry in 2002, he was enamored with its aura of ease, Southern hospitality, and true, inherent beauty. His love for this place and its deep-rooted traditions is what moved him to his latest endeavor – a distillery.
“Sean is a self-taught Renaissance Man, a modern-day jack-of-all-trades. He balances the art and science of distilling with pure heart and soul – crafting each spirit so perfectly, even the most sophisticated whiskey connoisseurs are impressed.
“Both Watterson brothers are passionate about crafting authentic Lowcountry spirits that honor the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry and give back to its communities. Our hope is to make a heartfelt impact on all who are eager to learn and taste.”
According to General Manager Chris Crowe, Billy became curious about the history of Burnt Church Road in Bluffton and how it got its name. It truly was a mystery as no one seemed to know what church it was named for, but historical digging unearthed a lot about the evolution of the Bluffton community.
Using the name as a starting point, the brothers worked to learn about and invest in the distilling business, according to Crowe. It was hard and is still evolving, but, like good bourbon, it gets better with time.
For the consumer, the experience begins as they enter the brown brick building that resembles a holy place. As you enter the “Grand Hallway”, the “Study” is a room to the left that provides visual history and context. The gift shop is to the right. A few steps ahead is the “Sanctuary” where your eyes are lifted to a stained glass window, cathedral ceilings, sunlight pouring in from side windows, and comfortable dark wood tables and chairs surrounding the bartender’s crafting area.
Look to the left and you can see through a plate glass window into the actual distillery where water and grains are combined, cooked and the alcohol distilled. It is the baptism for bourbons Anita’s Choice and Johnny Fever, Bluffton Whiskey (American), Palmer’s Stretch (Rye Whiskey), Sin Eater (Cinnamon Whiskey), Devil’s Elbow Gin, and Burnt Church Vodka. The distillery also offers Sippin’ Saint moonshine and Amethyst, a non-alcoholic spirit.
“It begins with six different locally-sourced grains,” explained Crowe. “We work with farmers for specific varieties. Most are from farms in South Carolina who can deliver to us in small batches. It is our hope that in two to three years we will be able to dump batches that are all South Carolina-sourced.”
The tall double-columned copper still is designed to run the mash through twice, bringing the whiskey liquid to 130 proof. A round copper “kettle” is used to produce the clear liquors of vodka and gin.
It is when the alcohol has been separated from the mash and water that it is poured into the barrels produced by South Carolina Oak to Barrel. The barrels are moved behind the main building to the Rickhouse, a dark warehouse where air and natural temperatures swirl around the barrels. They will remain there for years, allowing the toast and char inside the oak structure to meld with the alcohol blend, waiting for eventual bottling, pouring and sipping.
That is not the end for the barrels. “We sell the used barrels to other entrepreneurs,” said Crowe. Some of those include a honey producer, a mead producer and woodworking crafters. “They create products which we then sell in our gift shop.”
The non-alcoholic mash is given to local farmers to use for cattle feed. Everything that can be recycled is given a new purpose, said Crowe.
While South Carolina Oak to Barrel and Burnt Church Distillery work together to create a product, the profiles of both these companies are also matched. Both are small South Carolina companies that seek out other South Carolina suppliers. They are owned by entrepreneurs with visions for multiple businesses. They both relish the history of their surroundings, invest in their employees and try to find ways to give back to the communities.
“This story is one that can be told time and again throughout the Southern Carolina region of South Carolina. In a small state comprised of small communities steeped in natural beauty and a rich history, you have an outstanding environment to foster entrepreneurship, creativity and collaboration,” said Kay Maxwell, Vice President of SouthernCarolina Alliance (SCA).
SCA is the regional non-profit economic development organization that has worked with both businesses.
“Every time a new manufacturing operation opens, new opportunities are presented for suppliers, vendors and new service providers,” she said.
“When we’re recruiting new companies or assisting existing industries with expansions, we always encourage and try to assist companies to source locally and ‘BuySC,’ but rarely does it happen so organically with literally palatable results!
“What makes the Burnt Church Distillery and SC Oak to Barrel story so sweet is that you have such visionary investors incorporating the history, assets and beauty of the local communities into their products. We are grateful for their commitment to sourcing locally and to improving the quality of life for our local residents,” she said.
“We are a company that treats our employees as well or better than any company out there,” said David Burt of the Bamberg operation. “We are helping distressed communities while building a world-class product that we and the State of South Carolina can be proud of.”
Burnt Church Distillery employs approximately 30 people across its production area, bar and restaurant, said Crowe.
The Wattersons created a Lowcountry Legacy Fund whereby a portion of every distillery retail transaction is used to support programs that build infrastructure, expand educational opportunities and achieve economic equity in the local Lowcountry community. The fund is currently focused on programs and opportunities that support the local Black community in Bluffton and southern Beaufort County.
For both companies it is a celebration of entrepreneurship, finding ways to connect to create great products and giving back to their communities in the Southern Carolina region.
It is a most satisfactory sip.
For more information go to the following links:
South Carolina Oak to Barrel - White Oak Bourbon Barrels - South Carolina Oak to Barrel
Burnt Church Distillery - Authentic Spirits Crafted in the Lowcountry | Burnt Church Distillery
The Lowcountry Legacy Fund - CFL Giving (civicore.com)
Watterson Brands - Watterson Brands | Building smart, innovative brands