Over the past four years, Avondale Brewing Company has established itself as one of Birmingham’s most prominent producers of craft beer — and now, it’s branching out. Last month, the company announced its plans to open a small craft distillery, Avondale Spirits, before the end of the year.
“I’ve had this idea for about two years now,” said Nate Darnell, a brewer at Avondale Brewing Company and the head distiller at Avondale Spirits. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a little while, after seeing how craft distilleries were blowing up in Nashville. I pitched the idea to Coby [Lake, Avondale Brewing co-owner,] when I came on with Avondale at the beginning of this year, so now we’re doing it.”
Darnell, whose previous distilling experience comes from spending time working with “a few volunteer-basis distilleries,” said that Avondale Spirits will produce standard fare such as whiskey, gin and vodka in addition to what a press release described as “experimental spirits.”
“Experimental spirits for us is maybe a spirit that hasn’t been done before,” Darnell explained. “We’re brewers, so let’s see how certain citrusy hops taste in a gin. [The idea is to] kind of bounce back and forth between us as brewers and [distillers].”
Avondale Spirits’ distillery will be located within Wooden Goat, a soon-to-open Southeast Asian restaurant located on 41st Street South, just a few doors down from Avondale Brewing’s taproom. The restaurant’s bar will feature a window with views of the still as well as cocktails made with the distillery’s spirits.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get such an up-close look at the spirits you’re going to use being produced,” said Wooden Goat head chef Matt Ralph. “We are excited to collaborate directly with the distiller in developing our cocktail menu.”
Initially, the spirits will only be available for purchase at Wooden Goat’s tasting room, due to the what Darnell describes as the distillery’s “super small” output. “Our still is only going to be 50 gallons, so we’re not going to be producing a whole lot of bottles,” Darnell said, noting that a typical run would produce 100 bottles. “The idea is, if we can produce enough to suffice the Wooden Goat, then we’ll start looking at some limited distribution around [the city]. Even at that point, I think it’s probably just going to go to some of the craft beer/cocktail spots around town, if that’s something they’re interested in. We’re kind of playing it by ear on that one. Hopefully we can make enough. We’re looking to maybe expand the brewery down the road and that will include a larger facility for distilling.”
For now, though, Darnell expects that customers will be attracted to the distillery’s “grain-to-glass” business plan, which he believes will set Avondale’s spirits apart. “There’s a lot of distilleries out there right now that are purchasing bulk spirits from a place up in Indiana and calling it their own, or adding one ingredient and then saying it’s theirs, which you couldn’t ever get away with if you were doing it in brewing,” he said. “We wanted to be really authentic with it. We’ll be doing all of the sourcing of the grains, mashing, distilling, aging, bottling… Everything’s going to be by hand.
“I think that’s going to be one of the biggest defining characteristics for us,” he continued. “But I also think that what we want to do is blur the lines with some of our spirits as having a heavy brewery influence. We will make the standard vodka and the standard gin, but also things that us as brewers would like to drink as a spirit.”
Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, a nationwide organization of small-batch, independently owned distillers, says that the “marriage” of breweries and distilleries is becoming increasingly common nationwide due to the wider range of ingredients and methods that can cross over from brewing to distilling. Barley, typically a base ingredient in beer, can also be used to make whiskey instead of the typical corn, for example. “With corn alcohol, you don’t get the flavor that you get out of barley,” Owens said. “[And] you can taste the grains. When you use corn, you’re not using toasted corn. But in barley, you’ve got the recipes for IPAs, porters, stouts… You have so much more to play with using beer [ingredients].”
Owens describes breweries’ influence on craft distilling as a “little renaissance.” “Mixologists are having a field day,” he said. “They’re reinventing all the old formulas. There’s all kinds of new and inventive ideas out there.”
Birmingham seems on the verge of a “little renaissance” of its own. The creation of Redmont Distilling Company, a small-batch producer of vodka, gin and whiskey, was announced earlier this year; though it has yet to open, its founders have also stated their intentions to use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. Redmont will be the first legal distillery to operate in Birmingham since the end of Alabama’s prohibition laws in 1937. Avondale Spirits will be the second.
“We’ve already talked to [Redmont],” Darnell said. “We’re excited that we’ll be the first two and that we can be friends. It’s not something that I would say is quite as competitive as other industries. We can have fun and try to make some good spirits here in Birmingham.”
Avondale Spirits, along with the Wooden Goat restaurant, are expected to open by the end of the year and will be located at 4100 3rd Ave. S. For more information, visit facebook.com/avondalespirits.