By Beth Lawrence
If all goes according to plan, the Qualla community could have a new distillery by next spring.
The operation would be the first of its kind west of Haywood County, according to 2017 data from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Mystic Farm & Distillery, a farm-to-bottle bourbon maker located in Durham, is working with property owner Charles McDarris to bring a distillery to the Old Mill property, less than 3 miles from Qualla Boundary.
The location along U.S. 441 had been home to an 1880s-era grist mill. An arsonist set the mill on fire in 2017, destroying the historic structure. The crime remains unsolved.
Now, McDarris and Lisa Lowrey of Mystic Farms hope to breathe new life into the site.
“(McDarris) started touring, came to the distillery in Durham, met with some of the current owners and said, ‘Would you think about this idea of putting a second distillery on this property,’ and everybody agreed to it,” Lowrey said.
Mystic Farms started in 2013. Its founders, Jonathan Blitz, a former lawyer, and Michael Sinclair, an experienced brewer, wanted to make their own version of Scottish spiced whiskey liqueur.
The distillery plans to lease the Old Mill property and oversee operations. Lowrey would have majority ownership and directly manage the Qualla site.
Like McDarris, Lowrey came to Mystic Farms in search of a new venture.
She brings a background in sales and business. She joined the Mystic team a year-and-a-half ago.
“One day I just said, ‘I really want to be a distiller; I gotta go. I can’t sit at my desk anymore,’” Lowrey said. “I found these guys, came here as a visitor and volunteer. I said, ‘I want to have my own distillery.’ They said, ‘Come back on Tuesday; come work with us and see if you like it.’ And I never left.”
The future operation would consist of a distillery, a barrel-aging house and a retail component.
Lowrey believes the venture will evolve into “a unique offering” for the area, rather than just a tourist shop with souvenirs.
The operation promises to bring about five jobs to operate the distillery and support staff to run the retail area.
Lowrey hopes to not only draw on the millions of visitors who pass through the Smokies each year, often on U.S. 441, but to pull in local interest as well.
“I really want the community to use that space for local events,” Lowrey said. “If people want to come have events there, if the local bridge club wants to come out and play bridge there, that’s fine too, but we really want to embrace the community in that area.”
She wants the location to be an experience rather than just a “liquor-centric” spot.
Lowrey believes the passage of a recent bill could help make the distillery more of destination than a stopover.
Senate Bill 290, the so-called ABC Regulatory Reform Bill, was presented to Gov. Roy Cooper on July 19. The bill would relax regulations on how distilleries operate.
Currently, a distiller can offer a ¼ ounce sample and customers are allowed to purchase five bottles per year directly from the business. All other liquor purchased from that distiller must be obtained through Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Under new regulations, distillers would be allowed to serve mixed drinks on premises and directly market products to state ABC stores.
Lowery is ready to move forward with the project, but is trying to secure funding.
She has met with Southwestern Community College’s Small Business Center and Jackson County Economic Development to work on finding revenue.
The county has not pitched in dollars at this point, said Rich Price, economic development director.
Mystic Farms distills what it calls, “The perfect combination: a nine-spice tea with a touch of wildflower honey blended into a 45 percent wheat bourbon,” first created on a stove top, according to information on the company’s website.
The company is following the sustainable trend in business of growing its own wheat and corn on the 20-acre Durham property and setting up beehives to source the honey used in its recipes.
They are a largely female owned company and the largest solar-powered distillery in the state, Lowery said.
As of 2017, there were 52 distillers across North Carolina.