Peer through the window of a former auto mechanic’s shop on Washington Street near downtown Durham, and you may be surprised by what you see.
A large, gleaming, customized copper still dominates the room. Beside it sits a smaller glass contraption called a Buchi R-220 SE Rotavapor, a pricy piece of equipment usually found in pharmaceutical labs. Its glass pot may be full of cucumbers, or perhaps figs. And toward the back, you might spot piled pounds of chocolate or gallons of concentrated coffee. They wait to be transformed into liqueurs.
These are the chief components of Durham Distillery, a new business looking to capitalize on a sudden intersection of shifting state codes, a growing area interest in craft alcohol and a booming neighborhood. Durham Distillery will specialize in gin by finding new ways to challenge an old process. It will combine traditional production methods with new laboratory science, just as you can see through the window.
“We’re hoping to really elevate what a modern gin can be,” says Melissa Katrincic, who owns and operates Durham Distillery with her husband, Lee. “For us, that meant bringing in modern distillation techniques and modern lab techniques to think about how to rebalance the flavors and the palates of gin.”
They are not alone: Just two blocks away, Two Doors Distilling Co. will commence operations in November with plans to sell its products by May. In the past five years, the number of craft distilleries in the United States has gone from around 40 to the hundreds. In 2007, North Carolina had zero craft distilleries; in 2013, 13. There are now at least 28, with predictions suggesting there may be as many as 45 by year’s end. A new law that goes into effect October 1 means that state distilleries can sell one bottle of alcohol per calendar year to each visitor. That may not seem like much, but it’s an essential step forward for the growing industry.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance that the law change is going to have. It’s a small step in terms of modernizing our existing system, but it is going to be a winner for the state of North Carolina in many, many ways,” says Scott Maitland.
Maitland is the vice president of the Distillers Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit association promoting craft distilling in the state. He founded TOPO Organic Spirits in Chapel Hill, too, and wrote the bill that’s now being enacted.
“It’s going to allow North Carolina tourism funds to support distillers, spur the growth of the distilling industry as a whole, increase sales in the ABC system, create jobs and strengthen the local foodshed,” he says.
Durham Distillery will open for tours and tastings on October 1, the day the new law goes into effect. The Katrincics have transformed their space into a classy attraction with a bar for tastings, ambient lighting and shelves lined with bottles of their products, waiting to be sampled or sold. That’s where visitors can test the distillery’s inventive process.
In addition to the copper still, the Katrincics employ the Rotavapor, which is normally used to separate solvents from chemical compounds with a vacuum. The results are studied for therapeutic benefits and drug potential, Lee explains. But the Rotavapor doesn’t need heat to distill compoundsor alcoholthe way a conventional still does, meaning it can extract the essence of the sensitive botanicals necessary for gin without scorching them.
“Not everything has to be vacuum-distilled,” Melissa says. “Juniper can handle the heat. Caraway can handle the heat. But it’s your fresh components like honeysuckle, fig and cucumberwho thinks about baked cucumber? That’s where the bitterness comes in.”
The vacuum distillation allows sensitive flavors to shine in the gin without the “baked” bitterness that comes with heat distillation, or without having to use artificial extracts. Both are common in other gins. The hardier botanicals, like juniper, are distilled via vapor distillation in the copper still, which allows the evaporating alcoholic vapors to pass through the berries, extracting their flavors in the process. As far as the Katrincics know, Durham Distillery is the only distillery in the country to use a combination of vacuum and vapor distillation.
Neither Melissa nor Lee had previous experience making alcohol, though they decided to try distilling gin when Melissa faced a layoff from her digital marketing job. Gin drinkers themselves, the Katrincics took some courses in distillation. Lee, who has an 18-year career as a pharmaceutical chemist, suggested incorporating the Rotavapor as an innovative approach.
The couple are now producing Conniption American Dry gin (44% ABV) and Conniption Navy Strength gin (57% ABV). They are flavor-forward drinks, as the fresh cucumber indeed stands out. There’s a faint taste of citrus, too, and the drink is smooth. They also produce three Damn Fine Liqueurscoffee, chocolate and mochawhich suggest melted ice cream. The liqueurs are made with coffee from Raleigh’s Slingshot and chocolate from Videri.
They’re starting to catch on. As of late August, all of Durham Distillery’s products are available at ABC stores. They are beginning to appear on the shelves of local bars and restaurants, too.
“We are always looking for ways to incorporate local ingredients, but are not willing to sacrifice ‘good’ for ‘local.’ With Durham Distillery’s gins we don’t have to,” says Shannon Healy, the proprietor of Alley Twenty Six. He did blind comparisons of the American Dry to similar liquors, and it won.
“We aren’t excited about having merely local gins,” he says. “Weareexcited about having really good local gins.”
Tyler Huntingtonof Tyler’s Taproom successhopes to occupy a nearby place on the shelf.
Huntington has wanted to open a distillery since 2007. Two years ago, he purchased the R.J. Reynolds tobacco prizery on Foster Street and converted half of it into The Rickhouse, a sleek event venue that opened in March. With thick brick walls, wooden ceilings made from timbers pulled out of the floor and huge windows that offer a view of the city’s old ballpark, the popular venue is already booking into 2017.
A glass wall inside The Rickhouse reveals a large copper still at its center and stacks of barrels on the other sidethe first components of Two Doors Distilling.
“Distilling is a kind of craft that’s reviving an old American tradition,” Huntington says. “A big part of what we hope to wind up doing is just putting a really high-quality product out and exposing the public to something a lot of people don’t really get that often.”
“That’s the beauty of craft,” continues Sean Stark, Two Doors’ head distiller. He came to Durham after working as a distiller at New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan. “It’s not all caramel coloring and sugar additives that make it perfect every time. The experience of craft is as much the value as the product.”
Two Doors will be a grain-to-glass distillery, producing rum, whiskey, vodka and gin. Huntington and Stark are also considering producing absinthe and liqueurs. The products will be made from regionally sourced ingredients, another reason the updated liquor laws could help lift the area economy. According to Stark, craft distilling is too small to threaten the state’s ABC sales, and resisting distillery retail actually hinders other portions of the state’s economy.
“It really competes against the distilleries being able to support their local grain suppliers, maltsters, sweet potato farmers, agriculture in general,” he says. “The more we grow, the more they can grow.”
Huntington thinks craft liquor is just beginning to happen here; in North Carolina, he hints, it might even have something to do with a history of bootlegging.
“You’re seeing the trend of distilling catching on faster than brewing caught on,” Huntington says. “People are just thinking, ‘Ok, what’s next?’”
In Durham, the atmosphere seems especially conducive to it, evidenced not only by two distillers in close proximity but also the breweries, cidery, meadery and spirit company nearby. Both Huntington and the Katrincics view this as synergy.
“I love that Durham Distillery is right around the corner. I love that Fullsteam is right over there,” Huntington says. “It would be awesome to have another brewery or another distillery here to make it a little brewery-and-distillery row.”
“In North Carolina, the atmosphere is good for it,” Stark echoes. “This is the only state I’ve been in where, if I say I’m a distiller, I rarely get asked, ‘What kind of beer are you going to make?’”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The spirit is willing”