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The Local Spirits

You never have to go far for a well-crafted cocktail in the Lowcountry.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott

In one of the more dubious honors to hit our fine area, this past November, USA Today named the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton area the “drunkest city in South Carolina.” This may seem like a backhanded insult from the publication, but if you look closely at the CDC data that bestowed this distinction on us, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

Our area’s higher-than-average income means that we, as locals, “are more likely to participate in activities related to drinking, such as going out to eat, going on vacation and socializing with coworkers,” according to the report.

So there. We only drink more than the rest of the state because we’re classy about it.

But there’s another reason why those of us south of the Broad imbibe a little bit more than our upstate counterparts: It’s the sheer volume of masterfully crafted local libations available in the lower 843. Whether your tastes run toward a robust cab, an aromatic gin or a complex rum, there’s a local spirit to suit your tastes.

Bulrush Gin

Tony Bagnulo founded Broad Creek Spirits after a career spent marketing spirit brands on the East Coast, from New York to Atlanta. That he had never launched a brand before and had never distilled his own didn’t deter him.

With help from his friends at Six and Twenty Distillery and a Dutch recipe he found dating back to 1860, Bagnulo was able to create a signature gin that has become a must-have in cocktails all over South Carolina and Georgia. Mixing the traditional juniper notes with hints of lavender, ginger and different citrus flavors, Bagnulo was able to create something with all the hallmarks of a traditional gin, with an unmistakable Lowcountry twist.

How Lowcountry? Several batches were made with satsuma oranges grown on his neighbor’s tree.

“It sounds like a cliché but we’re small-batch handcrafted,” Bagnulo said. “We make 600 bottles at a time. Which sounds like a lot, but compare that to Hendrick’s, which does 600,000 cases a year.”

Island Winery

Eyeing the sprawling industrial campus of Cardinal Road, where white vans loaded with ladders and tools begin and end their day maintaining Hilton Head Island, you’d be surprised to learn that you’re not far away from the area’s premiere winery.

And that might be part of the charm. “We just got another TripAdvisor award because we’re almost at five stars now,” said Georgene Mortimer, who owns the winery along with her husband, Loren. “People enjoy the visit because it’s off the beaten path.”

The wines they create here are built off of a dual foundation of deep family roots and applied scientific curiosity. Mortimer comes from a large Italian family and her grandfather was always making wine for family celebrations. An environmental consultant by trade, she was able to apply her scientific know-how to the art of making wine and Island Winery was born.

Today, the winery offers a full range of reds and whites using grapes from all over the world, as well as a few locally inspired varietals crafted from local elderberries and honey.

Hilton Head Distillery

As mentioned earlier, there’s somewhat of a drinking tradition here in the greater Hilton Head Island area. But that tradition is tempered by a sense of sophistication and creativity. This island was, after all, founded by risk-takers and visionaries.

All of these traditions, our island’s eye for the finer things and our keen sense of creativity, can be found in every bottle Hilton Head Distillery produces.

Start with the spirit that has set the beverage world on fire, Aermoor Vodka. Starting with a traditionally Caribbean molasses base, the unique process of this vodka draws in water from Hilton Head Island’s natural humidity. As such, this is one of the few vodkas you’ll find “made from clouds.”

This same creative spark is found in its line of rums, and its marriage of two distinctly different distilling traditions called, appropriately enough, Two Traditions. Distilled from sugar cane like a rum, this spirit is then rested in a port barrels similarly to a bourbon. The result is a smoky and complex rum that goes great with a sunny day and a set of toes in the sand.

It would be easy to stick to tradition and make something perfectly forgettable. But that wouldn’t be Hilton Head Island, now would it?

Daufuskie Island Rum Co.

As the hordes of tourists scouring the beaches with metal detectors in the endless search for doubloons might tell you, Hilton Head Island has quite the history when it comes to the golden age of piracy.

They may have never buried any treasure on the island (or anywhere, for that matter), but we can thank the great pirate captains of the day for establishing rum as the go-to spirit of the sea islands.

That tradition is carried on by one of the few hidden treasures that really does exist on the sea islands, the Daufuskie Island Rum Company. Proudly calling itself the “most inaccessible rum distillery in the U.S.” is one of only a handful of rums actually produced on an island.

Founder Anthony Chase prides himself on creating a rum that is truly made in America, with stills from Alabama processing South Florida sugar and California yeast into delicious rum poured into New York bottles. The next time you’re visiting Daufuskie, point your golf cart toward the Daufuskie Island Rum Co. and enjoy a tour.

Lucky Duck Distillery

There are few Southern traditions more engrained in our region’s culture than moonshine. Even on Hilton Head Island, you don’t have to go too far back in time to hear about a time when backcountry still dotted the forests and marshes.

Yemassee’s Chase Flowers grew up around the great moonshine tradition of the South, and used his formal education in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) repair to pursue the noble calling of distilling white lightning. If may seem like an odd background for a distiller, but as Flowers writes on his website, “HVAC happens to be the same process as producing alcohol minus the compressor.”

The still he uses is on display at the distillery, which is open for tastings by appointment.

Book a time and enjoy the full range of spirits that come from Flowers’ passion for moonshine, including apple pie, cherry, peach and white lightning. In addition to moonshine, Lucky Duck also is putting out small batches of bourbon and un-aged whiskey. As the distillery says, “We are always open to new ideas, as long as they are within the laws and guidelines that we must abide by.”