Distill Tripping: Taste the Spirits of North Carolina
North Carolina’s distinct liquor ties stretch as far back as the days of Prohibition, bathtub gin and moonshine. Whereas bootleggers once ran illegal spirits through back roads under the wraps of night, our state now features a number of distilleries – all legal, mind you – around which to plan an activity-filled 3-day weekend.
Day 1: Cavort Around Crown Town
Charlotte is a popular destination for visitors, and it’s not hard to see why. With a booming uptown scene and plenty of things to do across various neighborhoods, the Queen City is a great beginning to your trip.
First up is showcasing your adventurous side at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, which offers everything from mountain biking to zip lining to hiking to climbing over a 1,100-acre outdoor playground. Of course, not to be missed is the whitewater rafting itself, including Class II, III and IV rapids. Grab lunch at River’s Edge Bar & Grill and make sure to sit on the patio that overlooks the river for an incredible view.
After you’ve had your thrills, it’s time to hit the stills. Charlotte’s two distilleries are located in the up-and-coming LoSo, or Lower South End, neighborhood. Start at Doc Porter’s, named for the grandfather of Andrew Porter (co-owner along with his wife, Liz). Doc Porter’s specializes in vodka made with grains from nearby Marshville, and it added gin in 2016, and is also currently making bourbon, which will age in barrels during the next couple of years. Tours are $10 and it’s recommended you make reservations.
Right down the street is Great Wagon Road Distilling Company, founded by Ollie Mulligan, who moved to the U.S. from County Kildare, Ireland, in 1994. Mulligan’s Irish roots shine through his distillery, highlighted by Great Wagon’s Drumlish, a poitín (Irish moonshine) named after the village where his grandfather grew up. Great Wagon also produces Bán (Gaelic for “white”), its vodka and Rúa (Gaelic for “red), just one of a few North Carolina-distilled single-malt whiskeys. Tours are $15 and include samples of all three spirits. Walk next door to sister bar The Broken Spoke to enjoy a cocktail made with Great Wagon’s liquor, along with a full array of wine, plus craft beer from two nearby breweries – Olde Mecklenburg and Sugar Creek are located on the same street.
Once your distillery time is done, head to Uptown Charlotte, where a wealth of options awaits. You can continue enjoying craft cocktails by visiting The Punch Room, where renowned mixologist Bob Peters’ concoctions are like none other, as well as the speakeasy-style atmosphere of The Cellar at Duckworth’s. Charlotte is also home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where you can find out more about the bootleggers of yore in addition to learning the history of the motorsport. Plus, see the Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium from September to January, and the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center October through April.
Day 2: Come for the ’Shine, Stay for the ’Cue
Start your day with a delectable Southern brunch at The Asbury, and don’t skip out on the cast iron biscuits with bacon jam. Now you’re ready for the 90-minute drive from Charlotte to the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro area, where the latter town was the hub of moonshine-moving and also lauded as the birthplace of stock-car racing.
Call Family Distillery bears the name of one of the most famous bootleggers of the moonshine running era – Willie Clay Call, who was dubbed “The Uncatchable” by federal agents. Thankfully, you can now easily get your hands on one of Call’s several moonshines the distillery offers, including Apple Pie, Cherry and the original 101 Proof Sour Mash Moonshine. Schedule a tour ($5, samples included) to get an up-close look at “The Bull,” which, at 2,100 gallons, is the largest steam-injection still in the state.
You can’t venture through North Carolina without tasting barbecue, and Wilkesboro has two great offerings in Tipton’s and Brushy Mountain Smokehouse. After a satisfying meal, it’s time to ride the White Lightning – the traditional moonshine at Copper Barrel Distillery, which puts a unique spin on its product by selling ’shine in bottles styled similar to milk jugs. Copper Barrel also has put out moonshine flavored with cherries, blackberries and strawberries, which you can sample in the adjacent bar following your tour.
On your way out of Wilkesboro, make it a point to visit Moravian Falls to take in the majesty of a 35-foot waterfall. Many of the apples used for moonshine produced in Wilkes County were picked in nearby orchards, such as Perry Lowe, which offers fresh fruit and produce you can pick up for your short trek up the mountain to Blowing Rock.
The Blowing Rock itself is worth the visit (weather permitting), then it’s time to check into The New Public House and Hotel. After unwinding for a moment, head down to the bar for a signature craft cocktail, followed by farm-to-table entrees including mountain trout and lamb.
Day 3: Savor the Mountain Flavors
You have a wonderful and scenic trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway on your way to Asheville, a city exploding with creativity, culinary delights and cocktails galore. Prior to your distillery tour, it’s wise to stop off for lunch at 12 Bones Smokehouse, where the flavorful ribs are like none other (FYI, the Asheville location is closed weekends). Or grab a bite at White Duck Taco Shop, which offers an eclectic assortment of tacos, including banh mi, beef bulgogi and, yes, duck.
It’s then on to Asheville Distilling Company, home to the Troy & Sons (named after Troy Ball, co-owner with her husband, Charlie, and her three sons) line of moonshine whiskey. The distillery’s blonde whiskey is made with the trademarked Crooked Creek Corn that’s been grown on the same farm since the 1800s, while the Oak Reserve has a smoother finish thanks to being aged in bourbon barrels. Then there’s what Asheville Distilling calls “the first true American moonshine,” the award-winning Troy & Sons Platinum. Free tours are offered at Asheville Distilling, where you’ll see the gigantic 5,000-liter German-built still, the largest such one in the U.S.
Next, it’s time to discover more of Asheville’s scene. Craft beer reigns supreme in this city, and Wicked Weed, Burial, Green Man and Asheville Brewing are all worth paying a visit to and sampling their offerings – or you can schedule a tour via Asheville Brewery Tours or Asheville Brews Cruise. Tickle your funny bone by booking a historic city tour on the LaZoom Comedy Bus or take in live music at such venues as The Orange Peel or Altamont Theatre. You’ll want to make reservations to get into Cúrate, which features an incredible selection of Spanish tapas that will cause you to over-order – which is just fine.
It’s been a busy weekend of sightseeing, dining and distillery tours, and your final destination is a good one. Check in at The Omni Grove Park Inn for some much-needed rest and relaxation – but save time for one last cocktail at the Sunset Cocktail Terrace to finish off your trip.
Please drink responsibly. Designate a driver.