– Written by Kathleen Mansfield –
Known as “America’s Native Spirit,” bourbon has been around since the late 1700s. In the last decade or so it has seen a resurgence in Georgia and across the South, aided by the growing popularity of craft breweries and the “buy local” movement.
There is a saying that “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” To be considered a bourbon, a whiskey must meet several requirements:
- It must be produced in the United States. There is a common misconception that bourbon has to come from Kentucky. While Kentucky is a majority producer, bourbon can come from any state. Georgia has some excellent bourbons.
- Its mash bill, or grain recipe, must be at least 51 percent corn, with the additional ingredients being other grains like rye or wheat.
- It must be distilled at a max of 160-proof (80 percent alcohol by volume) and barreled at a max of 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV).
- Aging must take place in new charred American Oak barrels.
- Bottling must take place at 80-proof (40 percent ABV) or higher.
- There is no aging requirement for bourbon, but there are additional rules for labeling a bourbon based on its age.
Bourbon and other distilled spirits are made in two stages. The first stage is a process similar to brewing beer. The second stage is distillation, or purification; the liquid is heated to separate alcohol vapor from the water, then condensed back into liquid and collected as pure alcohol. Most bourbons are distilled at least twice.
Georgia has several active distilleries and a few others in planning. Some distill a variety of spirits, while some specialize in lighter spirits like vodka or gin or in darker spirits like whiskey or bourbon. Some distilleries have onsite tasting rooms, where they offer house-made cocktails or sample pours. Others don’t have a tasting room, but can tell you where to purchase their spirits at a restaurant or a liquor store. We’ve rounded up some bourbon distillers in the Peach State to learn more about their craft and how we can taste it.
M. Rose & Co. Distillers
890 Franklin Street
Beside the Dillard House
Rufus M. Rose was an Army medic during the Civil War who saw Atlanta not as a casualty of war, but as a business opportunity. Dr. Rose opened the R. M. Rose Company in 1867 and helped rebuild Atlanta’s economy with his successful distilling venture, producing quality spirits that were safe to drink at a time when imitation liquors were common. Georgia banned alcohol production in 1908, but the company moved to Chattanooga and then to Kentucky, continuing its whiskey production until Prohibition took effect in 1920.
Present-day R.M. Rose & Co. opened in 2012 in the former Dillard Cannery, reviving the business begun by Dr. Rose nearly 150 years earlier. The distillery features old-fashioned stills manufactured on site including cypress fermenting tanks and hand-built copper pots.
M. Rose & Co. specializes in traditional corn whiskies, including Georgia Corn Whiskey, Fire on the Mountain cinnamon whiskey and Good Neighbor peach and lemon whiskey. Its recent venture into bourbon production has yielded two varieties, Straight and Sour Mash, both of which are single-barrel small batch.
Tours and Tastings: R. M. Rose is open to visitors on weekdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and on weekends 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tours and samples are free to those 21 and up. The distillery is expanding in 2018 to include a bar for cocktails made with its bourbon and corn whiskies. R. M. Rose & Co. also provides samples of its spirits at the annual Dillard Bluegrass and BBQ Festival, taking place August 3-4.
3 oz RM Rose Straight Bourbon
1 oz Vermouth
1 Dash of Bitters
1 Fire on the Mountain Cinnamon Whiskey Cherry
Blend ingredients and stir with ice strain into a martini glass.
31 Webb Road
Jim Harris worked in the chemical engineering industry for more than 30 years before retiring with his wife to Lake Rabun in North Georgia. After two weeks, his wife told him, “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch. Go find a hobby.” Moonrise Distillery was established soon after.
Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Moonrise Distillery is a nod to the area’s moonshine history and a familiar stop for tourists traveling through Clayton. Harris designed his stills and cookers in the old Appalachian pot style, and added steam jackets to lessen the chance of scorching the liquid and thumpers to retain flavor. Locally sourced water and grains are used, with the exception of a special rye, the distillery’s “best kept secret” which Harris imports from a circa 1800s granary in Europe.
In the barrelhouse, more than 400 barrels of bourbon and rye whiskies mature – an impressive sight on its own, enhanced by the addition of a sky blue 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe. The vintage car was the pride and joy of Harris’s grandfather, James Henry, Sr.
Harris is the third of five generations to carry on the family name James Henry. His signature bourbon and rye whiskey are both namesakes of his grandfather, who ironically was “a man who didn’t drink, smoke, or swear.”
James Henry Premium Small Batch Bourbon is a full-flavored bourbon with notes of oak, cinnamon, caramel and vanilla. James Henry Rye Whiskey is a light rye with hints of cinnamon and oak. The two spirits have won multiple national Gold Medal awards and are distributed in seven states around the South and Midwest.
Tours and Tastings: Moonrise Distillery is open every weekday 9 a.m.–5 p.m. and on Saturdays 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Guided or walking tours of the distillery buildings and samples in the tasting room are free to those 21 and older.
Signature Cocktail : Moonrise Bourbon Sour
2 oz James Henry Bourbon
0.75 oz maple syrup
0.75 oz lemon juice
Blend bourbon, maple syrup and lemon juice. Squeeze in a slice of lime. Shake with ice and strain over fresh ice. Top with club soda and garnish with a lime slice.
731 E. College Avenue, Suite D
Hellbender is a species of salamander common in the mountains of North Georgia. Hellbenders prefer clean, swiftly flowing water void of pollutants, which happens to be the type of water that mountain moonshiners preferred in the days of illegal stills. These distillers would search for Hellbenders in streams to determine if the water was of the right quality for distilling. “If you found a Hellbender,” Whiskey Expert Casey Teague says, “you know you had a good stream to make whiskey with.”
Independent Distilling Co., a small-batch distillery in Decatur with a focus on local ingredients, remembers the Hellbender salamander with two of its distilled spirits. Hellbender Corn Whiskey is distilled with corn from Riverview Farms in Ranger, Georgia, with notes of caramel, apple, and hay. Aged in new oak barrels, the whiskey becomes Hellbender Bourbon, a bourbon with oak, vanilla, and burnt orange flavors.
IDC also distills Independent White Rum, made from table-grade molasses. It is aged in a combination of new barrels and used Hellbender Bourbon barrels to create Independent Barrel-aged Rum with vanilla, spice and honey notes. To celebrate the distillery’s four-year anniversary in March, IDC released a special whiskey called Outlier No. 4 Rye Whiskey.
IDC works with breweries and wineries too; Blue Tarp Brewing, Gate City Brewing, Three Taverns Brewing, and Mark Twain’s Brew Pub have used IDC barrels to age beers, and IDC is currently aging Hellbender Corn Whiskey Cab Franc barrel from Three Sisters Winery.
Tours and Tastings: IDC is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays 3-8 p.m. Guests 21 and older can purchase flights of IDC’s distilled spirits as well as cocktails made with those spirits.
2 oz Hellbender Bourbon
0.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.5 oz Dry Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
Blend ingredients, stir with ice strain into a coupe glass and garnish with an orange peel.
199 Armour Drive NE
Across the street from Sweetwater Brewing Company sits ASW Distillery, one of Atlanta’s first legal distilleries to open after Prohibition. ASW was a hobby-turned-career for two friends who met at the University of Georgia. Their original recipe, American Spirit Whiskey, was the catalyst for their business venture and one of the first spirits to hit the market.
Fiddler Bourbon is ASW’s ode to the art of whiskey. The concept behind Fiddler, Chief Marketing Office Chad Ralston says, is to showcase great whiskies from across the country. “We ‘fiddle’ with them to create something new,” he says.
The distillery finds these unique bourbons and finishes them in-house in various ways to create entirely new bourbons. There are currently three variations of Fiddler: Unison, which is a marriage of an exceptional high-wheat bourbon from Indiana and ASW’s house-distilled, high-malt bourbon; Straight Bourbon; and Georgia Heartwood Bourbon, finished on hand-charred staves of seasoned Georgia white oak that ASW harvested in Jackson County. Georgia Heartwood Bourbon is released once a year as a cask-strength bourbon.
ASW also distills Armour and Oak Apple Brandy with apples from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge and several variations of malt whiskey such as Resurgens Rye and Durality Double Malt, which is the first whiskey of its kind, distilled from half cherry-smoked malted barley and half malted rye.
Tours and Tastings: ASW is open to the public on Thursdays 4:30-7 p.m., Fridays 4:30-8 p.m., and Saturdays 12-5 p.m. The distillery offers several tour experiences to choose from, such as the Fiddler Unison Bottle Experience which includes a distillery tour, guided tasting, 3 samples of whiskey or cocktails, and a bottle of Fiddler Unison Bourbon.
Signature Cocktail: Old Fashioned
2 oz Fiddler Unison Bourbon
1/3 oz Simple syrup
5 drops 18.21 Prohibition Aromatic Bitters
Splash fresh orange juice
Combine ingredients over ice in shaker. Stir and strain into glass. Squeeze in an orange peel and add as a garnish.
Lazy Guy Distillery
2950 Moon Station Road
Lazy Guy Distillery was started as a retirement plan for founder Mark Allen in 2013. Located in Kennesaw near the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, the Lazy Guy office and distillery are housed in a historic house and barn dating back to the 1800s.
Allen produces bourbon with Georgia-grown corn and other regionally-grown grains. While his first batch of bourbon was aging, he began producing unaged white spirits like gin; however bourbon and rye whiskey are his focus.
Side Track Bourbon is a 90-proof small batch bourbon characterized by caramel notes and smooth finish. Embers Georgia Straight Bourbon is a distillery exclusive which will be made available for distribution sometime in 2018. Embers is 100-proof and aged four years. Lazy Guy Distillery also produces several rye, corn, and combination whiskeys and a “perfect sipping” gin called Atlanta Gin.
Tours & Tastings: The distillery offers free tours to all ages on Saturdays. The Spirit Lab is open Fridays 4-8 p.m. and Saturdays 12-8 p.m. featuring a custom lineup of cocktails and spirit flights for purchase.
1.5 oz Side Track Bourbon
0.5 oz Merlet Crème de Peche
Top with Iced Tea
Build the cocktail in a tea glass and toss it between a mixing glass and the tea glass. Garnish with lemon.
Thirteenth Colony Distillery
305 North Dudley Street
In 2008, Thirteenth Colony became the first legal craft distillery in Georgia. The founders endeavor to make traditional Southern spirits with local ingredients and a personal touch. The majority of corn used in the distillery’s mash bills comes from a local feed and seed in Americus, and its barrels come from a South Carolina cooperage house that produces custom charred and toasted oak barrels specifically for Thirteenth Colony’s bourbon and rye whiskies.
Thirteenth Colony has close to 500 barrels of bourbon and rye aging at its warehouse. After a barrel is used once for a bourbon or rye, Thirteenth Colony uses it for other whiskey expressions or offers the barrels to breweries around Georgia for barrel-aging beers. Omaha Brewing in Omaha, Southern Brewing in Athens, Piedmont Brewery & Kitchen in Macon, and Cannon Brew Pub in Columbus have all aged beer in Thirteenth Colony barrels.
Southern Bourbon is a traditional 95-proof bourbon produced from a mash bill of corn with rye and malted barley grains aged four years for a smooth, rich, and slightly sweet finish. Sour Mash Bourbon is a wheat bourbon aged three years and bottled at 105-proof for a full-bodied flavor and complex notes of vanilla, caramel, spices and sweet honey.
Thirteenth Colony also produces several brands of whiskey, vodka, and gin including Southern Corn Whiskey, Plantation Vodka and Southern Gin.
Each of Thirteenth Colony’s spirits has been recognized with awards from national spirit competitions like Best of Year Spirits at the Beverage Testing Institute.
Tours and Tastings: Thirteenth Colony is a production facility and not currently open to the public. An expansion is anticipated down the road to host tastings, but for now visitors can drive by the distillery on their way to some of Americus’s local highlights, including the famous Windsor, a historic Victorian hotel built in 1892, and Café Campesino, Georgia’s first and only 100 percent fair trade organic coffee company. Americus is also the location of the Hot Glass Craft Beer Festival, an annual April celebration of the city’s artisan glass blowing tradition and the state’s craft beer culture.
2 oz Southern Bourbon
0.5 oz Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur
1.5 oz Looza peach nectar
2-3 dashes Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
Place 4 medium-sized fresh basil leaves in a shaker and muddle well. Add the liquids. Add ice
and shake vigorously to chill and blend the flavors. Strain into an ice-filled short glass and garnish
with a fresh sprig of basil and two thin straws.