The Old Fourth Distillery is Bringing Booze Back to Atlanta

Y’all know the Woblet team is filled with proud Atlantans.

We might not have been born here, but we’ve claimed this city as home. If you had asked us last week, we would have said that we didn’t think that we could love this city any more.

We were wrong, or maybe just uninformed. This past week, we met with the men trying to resurrect Atlanta’s storied liquor history by establishing the first distillery in Atlanta since Prohibition. Located in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward, the aptly named Old Fourth Distillery is the brainchild of five local dudes, brothers Craig and Jeff Moore, Gabe Pilato, Justin Gray, and Andy DuVall.

The owners of Old Fourth Distillery

They’re currently running a month-long Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to establish a world-class distillery. (Which, as we found out, is a pretty enormous endeavor.) We met up with Craig and Gabe (who are pictured above–one from the right and furthest to the left, respectively) earlier this week to get the lowdown on the Old Fourth crew, distilling, and the surprising way that they plan to make their liquor.

Some background on the boys

It’s a story that would make any mother proud—five childhood friends grow up, move apart, and eventually come back together to start a project that encourages local growth and community. This particular project? Making liquor.

All five members of the Old Fourth crew grew up together around Atlanta. In their young adult years, each did his own thing and created his own, entirely unrelated career: Craig and Jeff sell specialty computers and residential real estate, Justin became a musician and general contractor, Andy is a CPA who lived in Finland for a few years, and Gabe owned his first restaurant at age 22. Talk about diverse interests.

On New Year’s Eve 2011, the five of them reunited at a New Year’s party. Craig already had a long lease on a building in the Old Fourth Ward and wasn’t sure what to do with it. The boys got to talking, they got to drinking, and they decided to open a distillery. Their varied skills–food and beverage knowledge, business chops, technology, and real estate–would all come in handy when embarking on the project, which turned out to be pretty demanding. In the coming weeks, they researched the market and realized that there was a great dearth of craft spirits—or any legal homegrown spirits—in the Atlanta market. And so the Old Fourth Distillery was born.

Distilling, you say? Tell me about that

It’s not exactly an easy thing. Just try looking it up on Wikipedia—let us know when you’re massively confused (it won’t be long). So here’s a summary: to start making any liquor, you need three things: sugar, water and yeast. Traditionally, the sugar comes from grains like wheat, corn, or potatoes, which are mixed with water and yeast to create a mixture called a wash. The yeast in the mash eats the sugars, creating alcohol in the process.

The blueprint of the Old Fourth still, currently being built.

The blueprint of the Old Fourth Distillery still–a pot still with two columns

Old Fourth Distillery's actual still

Old Fourth Distillery’s actual still, still in progress

Once the sugars have been eaten by the yeast, it’s time to distill the wash into alcohol. Distillation is the process of separating the alcohol in the wash from the water by boiling the entire mixture in a still. Because alcohol and water boil at different temperatures, when the wash boils, the alcohol evaporates faster than most of the water. The evaporated alcohol steam is forced through a pipe at the top of the still. The steam then cools, which allows it to condense into a liquid—but not one that you’d want to drink. The clear liquid that emerges from a still is hooch highly concentrated alcohol–the stuff we enjoy at home has been diluted. (Unless, of course, you’re drinking real moonshine, in which case, where do I get it? be careful and good luck.)

Of course, there are different processes for different alcohols. Gin is basically vodka that goes back through the distillation process with some added botanicals for flavoring. Whiskey gets barreled after distillation, which is where it gains its color. Of course, all this is the Sparknotes version of distillation. But maybe now you’re ready to understand Wikipedia.

The good stuff (aka the booze)

Now that you know a bit about distilling in general, we can talk about Old Fourth Distillery’s liquor specifically. If you were wondering, none of the Old Fourth crew has a background in distillation. Gabe comes the closest—he’s owned and managed restaurants all over the Southeast, and he is currently a sommelier at Miller Union—but wine is an undistilled alcohol, so it’s not exactly the same thing. To learn about distilling, the Old Fourth crew researched and tested recipes. They built a fermentation barrel in their warehouse and made washes, experimenting with a variety of grains as the base of their booze.

Eventually, they settled on a recipe—and here’s where it gets weird. Instead of using traditional grains, they found that the best vodka came from using straight sugarcane in their wash. Though this is not exactly customary, they found that it has two important benefits. First of all, when liquor is made with grain wash, that large volume of wash ends up a waste product of the entire process. Because by the end of the process it’s a weird, boiled-down form of grain, it isn’t very usable, except by farmers. But transportation to farms is difficult, particularly when your distillery is in the middle of a city, not the backwoods of Georgia. By using sugarcane–which, by the way, is a regional product–the only waste product from the entire distillation process is distilled water.

Second–and here’s the important part for vodka connoisseurs–vodka is meant to be a flavorless liquor, which is a tricky thing to do. When traditionally made with grains, distillers work to remove the taste of the grains from the finished product. Because the Old Fourth recipe calls for sugarcane, the purest form of natural sugar available, the result is a cleaner, or more purely flavorless, vodka.  Not that we’ve had it—they’re not currently producing any liquor, but they told us that their non-traditionally made vodka will taste totally authentic. The main difference is not in the taste but the texture: while the average vodka has a real bite, theirs is a bit more mellow. Plus, they told us that their vodka will have a nose (or smell) of carmelized sugar. If anything, this sounds like an upgrade to us.

That sounds awesome, I want it now

Us too. Sadly, we’ll all just have to wait for it. The distillery isn’t quite ready to produce Atlanta’s first local booze, and this is where you come in. As it turns out, opening a distillery is not an easy endeavor—they’ve been working on acquiring government licenses, readying their space, finalizing their recipes, and buying the proper equipment for two years now. And it ain’t cheap. Old Fourth Distillery is running a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the rest of their endeavor—getting their custom-designed, German-made still to Atlanta, buying barrels so they can get started on making whiskey, and building a tasting room for your benefit, among other things. The campaign has been running for a week, and they’ve already raised over an eighth of their $40,000 goal. But they need more, and you know you want the booze, so go give.

Now that you’ve helped them out, get psyched for some quality spirits. They’re hoping to start producing vodka in March 2014 and be ready to sell by May. Gin will come soon after, hopefully as soon as early 2015. The whiskey won’t be ready for a while, though. They want to barrel it in their first six months of operation, but they’re doing it the right way, which means that if they barrel it in 2014, it won’t be sold til at least 2020. Don’t hold your breath, but do hold out hope—seven years in charred oak barrels work strange and beautiful magic on white whiskey.

The liquor might not be ready for a while, but our pride needs no more preparation. While we wait for our city’s first local liquor (at least the first in a century), you’ll find us bragging about the city that the Woblet team has adopted as home. As the Old Fourth boys told us, the Distillery is just helping Atlanta become the world-class city we already think it is.

Old Fourth Distillery Mural

The freshly-painted mural across from the Distillery building

From the Woblet blog, November 15, 2013. Read it at Woblet.

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