Written by Jay Sanders | Photos by Anthony Harden
With H&H Distillery, Wendell and Taylor Howard set out to create a craft liquor uniquely theirs, while still paying tribute to their deep regional roots.
A young Wendell Howard was peering out the window of his grandfather’s 1963 Cadillac as a massive hurricane was bearing down on New Orleans. Seeking relief from his implacable asthma, Hazel Howard had escaped the wetter deciduous weather of Western North Carolina for the drier climate of Arizona, but now his intrepid grandson had come for a visit. “We met him in New Orleans and we rode in his Cadillac,” Wendell fondly recalls now. “I remember that I couldn’t see—we were trying to beat the storm coming in. It was raining.”
Years later, after Hazel had bought a new Cadillac, Wendell hinted that he might want the ‘63. “He left it sitting under a big oak tree,” Wendell says. “‘Let me buy that Cadillac from you, let me buy that Cadillac.’ Finally, one day Hazel said, ‘Just come and get it.’ I brought it home and let it sit on the ground—not under a roof—for a long time. When I had a little money, I’d fix a little bit, and fix a little bit—I’d pay somebody. I didn’t do it; I had somebody do it. It’s still got the original pocket cards—the registration cards with (Hazel’s) signature on ‘em.”
Which brings us to Hazel 63.
Here in 2017, Wendell, along with his son, Taylor, make up the father and son team behind Western North Carolina’s newest microdistillery, H&H Distillery. Located at 204 Charlotte Highway in Fairview (just outside Asheville), their production facility is open for free tours and tastings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, or by appointment.
And H&H’s premier spirit is Hazel 63, named in honor of Wendell’s grandfather (Taylor’s great-grandfather) and his eponymous Cadillac. Introduced in 2016, it has already received a pair of awards: the 2017 American Craft Spirit Association Bronze Medal and the 2017 American Distilling Institute Bronze Medal. Hazel 63 is a premium, double-oaked rum that combines the finest select molasses with crisp mountain water. The result is an exceptionally drinkable spirit that mixes perfectly in a cocktail, or you can drink it neat and experience a flavor profile complex enough to please even the most discerning palate.
“My dad was the oldest of three boys. He’s the one that drank,” says Wendell. “My grandparents didn’t drink, but my grandmother would nip. My dad just turned 83. I asked his brothers, one is 80 and the other is in his seventies, ‘Do you think my grandmother would be mad at me for having my grandfather on a bottle of booze?’ They said, ‘She would, but not for you—you were the golden child with her.’”
The Howard family has deep roots in Western North Carolina. “Both of my parents are from Cleveland County, so that’s where I kinda hung out as a kid,” Wendell says. “I’m trying to tie all of our products to something,” adds Taylor. “Our vodka will be called Old 74—that’s the road that leads from here to Shelby.” Following the launch of Hazel 63, H&H has a delicious queue of exciting new spirits to roll-out in the next few years. These include Switchback Whiskey, Old 74 Vodka, Hwy 9 Gin, a coffee liqueur, and even an exceptional limoncello liqueur.
Opening a distillery is considerably more difficult than starting a brewery or a vineyard. It is a lengthy process laden with multiple steps and potential pratfalls.
A Family Affair
H&H Distillery is indeed a family affair. Wendell and Taylor are joined by head distiller Jason Riggs, assistant distiller Zak Rutherford, and Taylor’s wife, Leah. “We’ve got an awesome team,” remarks Wendell. “Jason is very talented. He’s like a chemist; he can do lots of things with the product.”
“We all sit down and have our employee meetings face-to-face,” says Jason. “We have lots of projects, but there are leads. We assign them based on our specialties. Anything that is being designed goes to Zak. I write all of the copy. Leah applies for permits and pays our taxes. We all have a part in it, although we’ve had to delegate who’s taking charge so that there’s not too many cooks in the kitchen. There’s full autonomy in all of our work. I really appreciate the trust.” Jason is quick to observe the power, passion, and beauty that comes from a sense of collective ownership.
Wendell and Taylor Howard also operate T&K Utilities, a licensed contractor specializing in water, sewer, and highway work. “I’m just a local,” says Wendell. “I went to Reynolds High School right across the street. Started out in the banking business back in 1982. I was a repo guy and I was in the sales finance area. I worked with Terry Brothers Construction for nine years, the same type of work that I do here now [with T&K Utilities]—we’ve been in business almost 22 years.”
He adds that before getting involved in the distilling business, T&K played a major role in the construction of many of Asheville’s largest brewing operations. “Of course, number one on the alcohol end is, we’ve been part of the infrastructure at Sierra Nevada. We did almost all of the water line and sewer line to the site and on the site. We brought the off-site water from Airport Road, which was a separate contract with the county. We were out there a long time. We’ve also done work for New Belgium at their plant and warehouse. The infrastructure on Wicked Weed when they first started. The fire line and the water line into their building [on Biltmore]. We’re currently working on the Apothecary Beverage Company on Coxe Avenue.”
The seed that germinated into H&H Distilling was planted by Taylor. “I saw them do it,” he says, “and thought, ‘I could do that. Let’s go big and make it legal.’”
Enter Joe Baker, a criminal lawyer who traces his roots to the earliest settlers of Eastern Tennessee. Baker is also the moonshine impresario behind Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg and the Yee-Haw Brewing Company in Johnson City. “I met Joe Baker and his wife, Jessi, at the gym my wife, Amy, and I go to,” explains Wendell. “I knew he had Ole Smoky, and I knew just a little bit about what it was, but I didn’t know how big it was. I told him I was going to go to distilling school in Wisconsin with my son, and he said, ‘You don’t have to go to Wisconsin, you can come right over to Gatlinburg and stay as long as you want.’ So [Taylor and I] went over there together.”
Taylor returned to Ole Smoky for four days, soaking up every ounce of knowledge he could find. “He’s welcomed us with open arms,” says Taylor. “They had two shifts. I was there for one and a half shifts for four days. All of our fermenters came from Old Smokey as a gift.”
Continues Wendell, “Joe Baker told me one time, ‘You know that if Taylor’s business starts doing well, he’s going to quit your construction company.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ My goal is for my kids to do what they like and can survive with. Ole Smoky took off very fast—they’ve got the foot traffic, and the laws in Tennessee [are much more favorable]. I think they went, in three years, from three people to 300 people.”
H&H Distilling, LLC, was officially formed in 2012. They bought their equipment in December 2014, and it arrived at the end of 2015. “Our pot came from Alabama, our column came from Colorado, our plates came from Florida, our pumps came from Canada, everywhere,” says Taylor. “Nobody’s stuff blends in with the other person’s stuff, so you just kinda gotta figure it out yourself: ‘Oh yeah, this will work.’ That was a hurdle, but I like that kind of challenge.
“As a kid, everything was hands on—tear crap apart, put it back together kind of thing. I went to school for electrical computer engineering. A lot of those [computations] will calculate for fluid and thermal dynamics. That was [also] a hurdle. Even our cooker, I got it in from a company and it wasn’t efficient. So I sat down and I tried to find people to calculate it, and we ended up coming up with our own design. We put a heat sink in there to make it more efficient. The heat-up times were drastically better, the exhaust temperatures were a lot cooler. We might do something similar with the still.”
It took nearly a year to get the distillery legal, but H&H finally received their TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) permits in January, 2016. Taylor notes that getting their DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) permit involved a good deal of red tape. “Feds never came to inspect, but they asked for a lot of pictures. There were a lot of headaches in construction, but the state approved it on the same date.”
North Carolina Rum Runners
The State of North Carolina has a long and often tumultuous history with alcohol. The state banned the sale of alcohol completely in 1909, a full decade before the 1920 ratification of the 18th Amendment that ushered in the era of Prohibition, and never approved the 21st Amendment that, in 1933 repealed the “Noble Experiment.” After years of self-imposed prohibition, and the resulting losses in tax revenue, the 1935 North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation to set up government-run “control” stores. The first Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) store opened in Wilson, on July 2, 1935.
According to the Wilmington Star News, shoppers lined up to buy 825 bottles of liquor on the first day, and 100 customers had to be turned away when the store closed at 6PM. In 1937 the legislature enacted the Alcoholic Beverage Control Bill, which established a State Board of Control, now called the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
When looking around for their first product, H&H settled on rum for “mostly economic reasons,” says Jason. “[Molasses] is a raw ingredient that you can get year-round. We wanted to improve the industry. Rum is in need of a big revival. I did a lot of research, I bought a couple of books, and I looked up old times because you can’t move forward without understanding the history of something. That’s where I learned a lot about rum running throughout Western North Carolina.”
“We had the rum recipe before Jason,” notes Taylor. “We had all the yeast, everything was there, [then] he dialed in the amount of yeast, nutrient, and the sugar content, as far as where to start out at, to where we could maximize our efficiency. I had some different alternative aging techniques from [my studies in] Colorado and Davy Crockett Distillery from what Jason had—that’s kind of where he dialed in and tweaked the wood for the aging process.”
“I did not have so much experience with rum, like a premium high-dollar rum that’s being brewed on a small scale,” says Jason. “That’s what I wanted to do. There were a lot of rums that were really sweet and spiced—and ours is distinctly different than that. I wanted to differentiate ourselves by having something that wasn’t sweetened and spiced and masked a lot of the flavors. It’s very delicate. It comes off the still and it’s aged on brand new American and French oak. The French oak gives you sweet characteristics, like vanilla from an acid called lignans, and the charred American oak gives it more of the smoky roasted character. You’ll see when you try it that it’s very dry. It’s a great sipping rum.”
While refining the recipe for Hazel 63, Jason performed extensive experiments. His research and development process focuses on the exhaustive isolation of each ingredient to ensure that it features the exact characteristics he is looking for. “I learned a lot about sugar. I learned a lot about what rum is, what it has to be to be called rum. From that, I took a wide variety of raw ingredients to determine which ones I wanted to move forward with. So I knew I had to work with a simple sugar. I used different variations of table sugar to 100 percent molasses, and used different types of molasses—I didn’t just use one kind. I ordered a lot of molasses from a company called International Molasses. It’s all Caribbean-grown cane, and they extract it up here in the States. I got different grades of it. We also played with lots of yeast from different laboratories. That’s where I find the most enjoyment and play. Not only using one type of strain, but maybe combining multiple strains of yeast. They do perform differently in how well they convert alcohol, as well as how they create different characteristics.”
The same attention to detail is going into the development of H&H’s future products. As soon as they receive government approval, H&H will be bringing a delicious botanical gin to market. “People are getting turned on to gins,” notes Jason. “We did well over nine months of R&D before I was happy with the gin that we’ve come up with. I had over 100 botanical distillations, and then I started picking and choosing which ones that I wanted to use to come up with the simple nine botanicals that I put in our citrus forward gin.”
“The gin is awesome,” agrees Wendell. “I’ve never been a gin fan, but I’ve changed my mind with what we’ve got now. The more people that get a chance at it, the more people that get exposure, the more I know will like it.”
The team at H&H is also developing a lemon-flavored Italian liqueur called limoncello. Most commonly produced in Southern Italy around the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi coast, the H&H limoncello is a delightful blend of lemon with a hint of local honey. “The limoncello’s all Zak,” says Taylor. “The lemons come from Chick-fil-A. They fresh squeeze daily, then box up the scrap rinds—eight boxes a day from one store. So we hand zested all of the lemons the same day, fresh. Zach used to work there and hooked up the lemons.“
“You better have some coins.”
Starting a spirits business can be an incredibly complex and challenging endeavor. Many laws that were put on the books after the repeal of prohibition in 1933 are still in place today, and the industry is heavily regulated at the federal level by the TTB. The complexity of these laws is compounded by supervision at the state level. In many ways, alcohol enforcement is the ultimate example of state’s rights in the great American experiment. Every state approaches alcohol regulation differently. While the legal drinking age was established as 21 years old by the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, many variations still exist in other areas of alcohol enforcement. Some states, such as North Carolina, highly control the sale of distilled spirits through ABC stores, while allowing the sale of beer and wine to be more readily available in grocery, convenience, and specialty stores. North Carolina also limits the alcohol content of beer to 15%, and does not allow a “happy hour” style special.
Opening a distillery is considerably more difficult than starting a brewery or a vineyard. It is a lengthy process laden with multiple steps and potential pratfalls. “Starting up is a whole challenge because there’s a lot of time that we’re waiting to be approved,” notes Jason. “In that time they’ve required potential distillers to have equipment in place in the location. For folks that are taking out loans or paying a lease on a venue, and also for the equipment, that puts them in a bind because they can’t legally start producing a spirit and getting some cash flow.”
“You better have some coins or some access to some coins,” advises Wendell. “My perception is because there is no return. Take, for example, the construction business. I can get a $200,000 piece of equipment and just go get it or pay rent on it. Sometimes they’ll let you pay in arrears. To get a still, even just a small one, you’re looking at $20,000. You can’t lease it or rent it. When you work in construction or go get a job, you generate some income out of it—let’s say, in a week, that you earned $5,000. I don’t know when we’re going to net $5,000 on our [distilling] products.”
Once the distillery is granted a DSP permit, then the process of getting authorization for each individual product begins. The formula and recipe must be submitted to the TTB for approval, and then the labels must be passed through the COLA (Certification/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approvals) review process. The COLA process examines the labels to make sure all of the font sizes and language are correct, all the government warnings are present, and there is nothing on the label that can be considered misleading or misunderstood. The entire process could be as short as a few days, but often drags into weeks and months as the TTB asks for clarification or revisions.
And even after getting approved on the federal level, in order to sell in a particular state, a distiller has to get the direct blessing of that state. “Just in North Carolina, which is very challenging to work with, we go to the commission in Raleigh, and we have to have a bottle to say, ‘We have the product and we’re ready to start distributing,’” says Jason. “They say, ‘OK, cool. Send us a couple of pallets.’ Now the product sits in the warehouse. Even though Bob Hamilton, the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission in Raleigh, says you’re good to sell, you have to hit the road and go visit some 400 ABC stores. This past year we have been splitting our time between producing and on the road selling.”
When asked about the target goals of H&H Distilling, Taylor simply replies, “Make liquor, sell liquor, make more liquor, sell more liquor,” to which Wendell quickly appends, “I like the drinking part. The making and the drinking part.”
The liquor industry judges growth based on case sale volume. “[So far], we have not been able to hit target,” says Taylor. “We have just now started to market our products. Our goal for 2018 is 3,000 cases. We just hired a brand representative that has a team of four, one for each quadrant of the state. They also represent Virginia, West Virginia, and South Carolina, and they’ll be moving to Tennessee soon. We’re approved for Tennessee. We should be approved this week for South Carolina. You go to Virginia every quarter, but if they approve you, it’s big. They approve you in every store. In North Carolina you still have to go to every individual board and store and say, ‘Hey, pick it up, pick it up.’ It’s hard to get into Virginia, but if you can get in, it is a big deal.”
Jason also represents Western North Carolina as a board member for the Distillers Association of North Carolina, a liquor industry advocacy group. In a recent interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times, he said, “We’re only seeking parity with the beer and wine industry in taxation, distribution, and samples.”
It’s a topic he’s quite vocal about. “I would really love the opportunity to self-distribute like brewers do,” Jason elaborates. “Because if the ABC store doesn’t stock it, but I’ve got a restaurant willing to purchase it, I would love to pull a bottle out and sell it to them. The number one thing with the ABC stores is, they don’t want to stock it until people are asking for it. If I go and get people to ask for it, and it’s not available, the sale goes cold. It’s a balancing act. I’ve got a guy that’s interested and he wants it. Now I’ve got to connect him with the ABC stores and be like, ‘Look, you better make sure it’s stocked for when my customer comes in to buy it, otherwise you’re directly causing a barrier for my sales.’”
In addition to that apparent bureaucratic catch-22, one of the biggest challenges that independent spirits producers face is getting consumers to try their products. On-premise retailers such as bars and restaurants make it a lot easier for a consumer to try a new beverage without being required to purchase an entire bottle or make a trip to the ABC store. “We pull reports and we can see who has a mixed beverage permit that can sell, and then I even do some Google searches on where’s the best place to eat in the area,” says Jason. “If they match our brand, I’ll go in there. You probably won’t see me in TGI Fridays and other chains.”
Changes to North Carolina law through the so-called “Brunch Bill” that was passed in June have provided a small modicum of relief. The bill included a provision allowing craft distilleries to sell up to five bottles of their product to visitors who tour their facility. Previously, consumers were limited to one bottle per person per year. Distilleries can also offer quarter-ounce samples at festivals, trade shows, and other events, provided they obtain the proper permit. “The more people that we can get to taste our product in a legal fashion, the better,” says Jason. “We are really begging people to come to the distillery and try our stuff. Our tasting room is the safest place to do it.
“We’re not in the business of making liquor, we’re in the business of selling it.”
“It’s challenging to make it work, but it’s awesome to know that the product’s out there,” says Wendell. “Somebody said to me, ‘That’s yours?’ and I said to them, ‘Just try it when you’re out somewhere.’ The more people that get involved, the better. We’re all about local in this area. Everybody seems to be about buying local. I think that’s going to help us.”
Legal distilling is rapidly tracing the trends of the craft beer revolution, creating a new generation of aficionados who enjoy a fine tipple made from quality local spirits.
A New Legacy
The history of North Carolina is full of vivid narratives, but none are more evocative than the region’s legacy in moonshining. Ever since Alexander Hamilton’s Whiskey Tax of 1791, people have been creating illicit “white lightning” to avoid paying taxes on their beloved spirits. From the German and Scotch-Irish settlers who first brought their whiskey production from the Old World, to the back road racing bootleggers that forged the path to NASCAR, distilling is one of the most colorful threads in the tapestry of Appalachian life. (Go to CapitalatPlay.com and enter the search term “Water of Life” to read a concise history of moonshining in Western North Carolina, originally published in the September 2016 issue.)
Nowadays, legal distilling is rapidly tracing the trends of the craft beer revolution, creating a new generation of aficionados who enjoy a fine tipple made from quality local spirits. H&H Distillery is the area’s newest addition to this growing movement. That award-winning double-oaked rum, Hazel 63, their initial offering, is rapidly gaining attention from consumers and bartenders alike. Currently available at many ABC stores across the state of North Carolina, and at some of the region’s more prominent bars, look for H&H products to expand their distribution into South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee in the coming months.
That old Cadillac may have once been parked under a tree, but now it is back on the road and ready to run.
“You live around here long enough, you end up with some of the locals—the sources may still be around here,” says Wendell. “I ran into one old guy and told him we had a product and he said, ‘Golly, you’re my competition!’”
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