Durham Distillery: where art meets chemistry

By North America correspondent Nick Kenny

The Big Lebowski is a great film.  Let’s not argue that point.  Really, what’s there to argue?  It’s a great film.  

What you may not know or care about are that (a) it introduced me to “White Russians” – a good thing, and (b) somehow White Russians became our family’s  New Year’s Eve traditional tipple of choice (two of which, made to my wife’s fine formula will, I swear, floor an elephant).

The White Russian mixes vodka with Kahlua and cream. The drink was conceived in 1949 by a Belgian barman called Gustave Tops. He created it and its sister cocktail, the Black Russian, at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels in honour of Perle Mesta, then US ambassador to Luxembourg. The “Russian” moniker salutes the origin of its signature ingredient.

And so, I found myself on December 31, 2019, at a convenience store in North Carolina (Aunt Bettie’s Café in the parlance of genteel local euphemisms … in a State that still has an odd and often volatile relationship with drink … not least of which is the folklore surrounding Junior Johnson, “moonshine” and the birth of NASCAR) charged with procuring the essential ingredients. 

But I was in trouble.  Stymied.  The victim of paralysis by analysis.  After years of simple vodka selection (something vaguely of Russian origin used to do) I was confronted by an entire wall of vodka.  From the mass produced globo-local types to multiple locally crafted versions seemingly from the four corners of the earth (a phrase that has always puzzled me, since I’m not a flat earth person – how can a globe have four corners? Maybe The Dude knows?). 

Nevertheless, less than an hour later I’d somehow navigated my way through indecision and emerged armed with some small-batch crafty vodka from Iceland … with the alluring promise of glacial water as a key ingredient … hmmmm.  (For reference, the Kahlua selection was a snap; one brand, one choice!)

What does any of this have to do with a very thoughtful and innovative gift that arrived from my daughter a few days earlier on Christmas Day – a tour of the Durham Distillery?

Many moons ago, when I first landed in the US, I  have to be honest and admit that I found my favoured tipple at the time – beer – to be mass produced and piss poor (this from a young man fresh from the heady days of CAMRA taking on big bad breweries in the UK and supporting real ale). 

Fast forward to today and there’s an amazing and often exquisite (if I can apply that word to beer) dazzling array of well-crafted local beers in almost every decent and decent-sized town in the US (Raleigh, my adopted home town, is no exception, come on over and try it! The names alone are worth it, and the breadth of IPAs alone is a good story which IMHO is not over-hopped … sorry …). 

But the more relevant to this story, a recent tandem evolution is the ongoing explosion of craft distilleries. The industry has growth from less than 100 across the US in 2005 (the theoretical start point for the American craft distilling movement) to more than 1800 by the end of 2018.

And North Carolina is well represented, as reviewed here in Grain to Glass

A few years ago I was also been intrigued to read about High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, founded by a biochemist from an international biotech company in San Francisco who recognised the parallels between his “day job” and how distillers produced bourbon … the rest is history and worth a read.  By now there are innumerable such interesting tales – and a circular link back to this story.

So, that gift from my daughter was a very thoughtful “Tour for Two” (my dad visiting from the UK joined me) to the Durham Distillery  – proud purveyor of Conniption Navy-Strength Gin and more.

The distillery was founded by a lady with a flair for marketing – Melissa Katrincic – who fondly recalls visits to her Grandma’s and her passion for good gin, and a chemist from a NC-based pharmaceuticals giant – who jointly decided to pursue a new passion. 

Our tour began with a “check in” G&T, before we moved on to meet “Gertrude” (named after the aforementioned Grandma) the main still, imported in all its proud copper-ness from Germany (Mueller-made) who sent technicians here to lovingly install it. 

The distillery is experimenting not only with vodka, but has acquired several bourbon barrels from High West Distillery, in which they plan to “rest” some batches of their gin to see how the oak and vanilla flavours may add a new wrinkle in the long story of gins and their aromatic herbal flavorings.

All in all, it was a well spent hour with our informed and amusing guide, Josh, aided by multiple taste tests … and the sidebar value of one of the staff who is a Star Wars fan and builds “working” droids … one of whom watches over Gertrude.  George Lucas, are you listening?

Thank you to my daughter for such a neat gift, plus a big thanks to the innovators and distillers who pursue their passion to bring all of this alcoholic goodness to a thirsty nation; I salute you.

So, wherever you may be, don’t just cater to your thirst and tastes, go out and meet and explore the folks who labour to put that cocktail in your glass!

As The Dude so carefully remarked “Hey, careful man, there’s a beverage here…”

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