On the eve of their 10th anniversary, Drinkhacker sat down with Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling. What began as a short Q&A pinpointing a few of the James Beard-nominated distillery’s highlights quickly evolved into an hours-long conversation about agriculture, friends, family, and just plain ol’ culture. The recurring theme during our time with them seemed to be the importance of the explosive Southern food movement of the early ’10s (“We’d all been shot out of a rocket,” says Ann) and the support network of chefs, writers, farmers, and the like that movement allowed them to surround themselves with.
So what better way to celebrate a decade in whiskey than to excerpt Scott and Ann, talking about a few of their favorite co-passengers on that Lowcountry rocket ship.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: So, Scott, did Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts trick you into reviving Jimmy Red corn?
Scott Blackwell: Maybe? Contrary to the way he tells the story, he definitely tested me the day I met him out at Clemson. After an hour of talking about this table full of corn he had prepared for me, I said, “Well, what about that one in the middle?” And he goes, “Oh, yeah, that’s the one you want.”
And I was like, “Oh… we should have started there?” To which he says, “You said you wanted to learn about corn.” He went on to ask how much we needed, which was about 800 to 1,000 pounds. And he called us “grain hogs. This corn is precious and that’s a lot for one batch.” But, we were distilling it. It’s concentrated. A little bit goes a long way.
Ann Marshall: He had concerns about the scale. I think he had been growing it in such small plots that he felt that he had the control he needed in order to retain its integrity. And he knew that we were not farmers. We were already pretty agriculturally focused because of our prior business. But we were not farmers.
So I think he had his reservations about us. He gets approached all the time, and especially in that time period, he was just getting hit up left and right. We couldn’t even get him to call us back originally. We had to get a friend to put a bug in his ear so that he would take us seriously from the beginning. He gave us enough seed to prove ourselves, to grow two-and-a-half acres worth. It was a crucible of sorts. I think he felt like, “I’ll do this and we’ll see where it goes.”
SB: Fast forward to that summer. He stayed around. He kept us at a good arm’s length, but he was around. We harvested and he was out there harvesting with us. We had to do it by hand. It was only two acres but it was in ankle-deep mud.
AM: I think we sort of opened a portal of use for this corn that existed 200 years ago, but one that he had not seen as he was reviving on a purely culinary basis. Chefs were buying 10, maybe 15 pounds a week, so the quantity that we needed per batch was ludicrous in his mind. But, really, it creates more of a market and more of a use for a grain when there is someone processing that much because it makes it a viable crop for farmers to grow. There’s a proving ground. There’s a playbook, if you will, of how to grow Jimmy Red. One we’ve had a hand in forming.
SB: The third or fourth year we were working with Dr. Steve Kresovich at Cornell. He’s really a sorghum and sugarcane geneticist, one of the top in the country. We ended up doing a terroir study. We did four different farms, one of which included Anson Mills Farm.
We plotted it and did gas chromatography. It was nerdy. We had these tiny little perfume vials that we put together with the different samples. And you could do sensory analysis. And Glenn was like, “You’re capturing something from a certain season, from a certain farm, and it’s different from farm to farm.” And, you know, I think the wheels started turning, because he started to understand that it’s about… flavor. And that’s very much something he understands.
AM: And distillation being, you know, the ultimate expression of flavor because you can’t hide anything in distillation. So, he was able for the first time to prove that terroir existed in grain. I think it ended up being as much of a surprise to him as it was to us, how passionate we would get about grain.
Drinkhacker: (Former longtime Maker’s Mark master distiller) Dave Pickerell. I just want you guys to talk about him and what he meant to you in those early days of your business.
SB: We met him in Asheville. We’re buddies with Oscar Wong, who has Highland Brewing. Oscar and I used to do this silly radio show Baking and Brewing. We got to know each other so we’d go over to the brewery and see him, and one day we went up he’s like, “Hey, come next door. There’s this distillery, [Troy and Sons].”
I’d never been to a distillery before. I’d seen stills and I thought it looked boring. But we go over there and they’ve got all this really cool, beautiful equipment and we got to know these folks. Long story short, they had hired Dave to come make rye with them.
I went up for the rye tests and we were talking and he goes, “You know, if you need somebody to come when you’re opening, I’ll come down. Just keep me posted.” He was running around the country like the Johnny Appleseed of craft distilling at that point.
So we got in touch with him in June of 2013. We had just gotten our natural gas turned on and the still was placed, but we weren’t really open. We thought we were gonna make rum, being in a port city. So he said, “Okay, make a rum wash. I don’t need to see you do that. Make that ready to distill. And then we’re gonna make a corn mash… together. A bourbon.”
So we did the rum, had that ready, and then he came in and he worked, and we sat in the house here because that place was under construction. It was ungodly hot so we would come here and work, and just sit and drill him with questions around grains and fermentation and all the equipment. All of it.
At the end of the day he was like, “You were already brewing beer, you’ve got the fermentation. You understand grain. You had a bakery, you understand the differences in varieties and flavor. Barrels and finishing are gonna be the biggest learning curve for you.” And then, as he’s literally walking out the door and he says, “Let me give you one more piece of advice, and that is: You can’t out-Maker’s Maker’s Mark.”
We knew what he meant, but we didn’t know what that meant for us. Like, “Yeah, what do we do if we’re going to make American whiskey?”
AM: The other thing I’ll say about Dave: This was sort of a breakout moment for a lot of small distilleries, and like Scott said, he was Johnny Appleseed. He was meeting all kinds of people. We did a classic “cabal” like a lot of people, and we were in a room with probably 60 or 70 people. Most of them were retired finance people or retired engineers or just… retirees.
I think Dave was seeing a lot of that in his client roster, and I think because we had just come out of another food business, I think he felt a lot of confidence in us. He actually never even invoiced us for his time with us. I don’t even think we covered his flight. We asked him a few times, and he never…
SB: He was like, “Yeah, yeah. I’m not worried about that.”
Drinkhacker: That’s wild.
AM: It was really wild. And then he just disappeared. We didn’t really keep in touch with him. We’d see him here or there. He’d come up to the table at trade shows. He was just always in drive. He never looked back. So we were lucky. I think his wisdom was so sought after that you had to knock down a couple of doors to get to the core of his wisdom, and I think that we must have shown him that we were really well-researched and just ready to get in it.
We never had a conversation with him about it afterwards. But, we were really lucky to have sat with him for those days.
Drinkhacker: So how did you meet Julian van Winkle?
AM: The secret sauce of High Wire has been a tiny organization out of the University of Mississippi, called Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). And for us almost every road, somehow, rides straight through SFA. That’s how we got Glenn to call us back. That is how we fell in with this amazing group of chefs and culinary historians and writers. It was a real turning point for Southern food. It was when it became/was becoming/had already started to become a little more respected.
We met Julian at Music to Your Mouth, a festival that took place at Palmetto Bluff, down here in Bluffton, South Carolina. SFA had a hand in helping to curate who the taste makers were, who the chefs were, who the brewers and distillers were. It was an SFA party where they would put us up in houses across the property, and we were next door to another SFA house that Allan and Sharon (Benton, of Benton Hams) and Julian and Sissy (Van Winkle) were staying in.
One morning they had a heap of people over for breakfast. It was everybody from SFA and the talent of the event just crashed their house. Allan was cooking bacon. We’d taken vodka to make Bloody Marys with, and Julian had a handle of Tito’s on the counter. He saw ours and he was like, “Y’all are gonna put me out of business one day.” He was totally just mocking us a little bit. But he cracked it open. He poured a little Tito’s and he was chasing them side by side. He’s like, “Yours is better.” It was high praise for us. We’d been in the business for, you know, months?
We tried not to fangirl, or fanboy, too much. We saw him again in, I think, March of ‘14, and every time we saw him we would chat a little bit more. He was always interested in the business. He was always really, really kind to us and 2014 was the first year we grew Jimmy Red corn. In ‘15 a friend of ours here named Jimmy Hagood stepped up and offered to grow some Jimmy Red for us at his family farm. Jimmy and Julian go way back. Jimmy is at Julian’s Pappy Cup every year – this funny golf tournament they do.
So, I think that Julian started asking Jimmy some questions about what he was doing for us. This was a slow-paced, years-long conversation and relationship with Julian. Probably a year later we were back at Music to Your Mouth. The festival leaders had put us in a house with Julian, Sissy, and Andre Mac, who’s an amazing winemaker.
One night Sissy and I went to bed, and Scott and Julian were sitting up talking, and he was just really curious about the corn. He asked Scott to send him a sample of what we were aging at that time.
SB: He wanted the white dog.
AM: He wanted the white dog, that’s right. This was probably at this point… 2016 or 2017, so I think we’d already released our first straight Jimmy Red… two whole barrels. So, we got home. We sent him some white dog in a flask. Slapped the FedEx label on the box and put my email address on it for notifications. Scott and I are sitting at my desk a couple of days later and I get an email that the package had been delivered. I’m like, “Scott, Julian got the package,” and he was like, “Cool. You know, I hope he opens it.” At that point we’re just skeptical that he wasn’t just being, again, very kind in expressing interest in what we were doing.
We finished meeting about whatever we were meeting about, Scott went back to his desk and he quickly walked back into my office and said, “I’ve got a missed call from Julian.” Scott calls him, and he’s already cracked into the flask minutes after receiving it.
SB: He’s like, “Hey, I just got your whiskey, and gotta say my mind’s kind of blown. What’s in here? Is it wheat or rye for the flavoring grain?” And I said, “It’s a hundred percent corn,” and he asked, “Are you sure? Man, I couldn’t tell. I swear it’s got wheat or rye.”
Then he starts asking more technical questions: what proof are you coming off the still at, what’s the barrel entry proof, what size barrels are you gonna use, what type of barrels are you gonna use? Things that I know, well… he’s not patronizing me. He’s truly interested. A few weeks later he pops up at the distillery with Jimmy (Hagood). He asks, “Hey, can we taste some stuff out of a barrel?” So we go back in the back and pull some out and he’s like, “What’s this, like, four years old?” And I said, “No, it’s like 14 months.”
Julian thought it drank older. There’s just something about the viscosity of it. He’s blown away. He says, “I gotta fess up. I took your stuff over to Buffalo Trace and ran it through the lab and there’s no wheat or rye, and you’re doing sweet mash. We know that. And it’s really good distillate. I think you’re onto something.”
He was interested. And he would just sort of stop by and visit. It just evolved and around that time [celebrity chef] Sean Brock, a Stitzel-Weller nut, texted me one night and said, “Hey, what do you think of making a Stitzel-Weller-like recipe? But use Jimmy Red.” I said, “Of course. Why not? Do you have the recipe?” And he said, “No, but I can get it.” He texted Julian and Julian gave him this old recipe.
We got in touch with Glenn because we couldn’t just use red winter wheat. We used white Sonora wheat and the plan was to make a few batches a year. During this period Sean decides to quit drinking, moves to Nashville; just a lot of life changes. We’re like, “Oh, well, I guess that idea is not happening anymore.”
So, we just have this barrel, or a few barrels of this whiskey. And, out of respect and courtesy, we’re not putting Sean’s name on it. I mean, we can bottle them and not mention anything about the history of them. But that seems like a shame.
So we reached out to Sean and we said, “Hey, we love SFA. You love SFA. Julian loves SFA. Maybe we ought to donate some of this to SFA and raise some money.” And so that’s exactly what we did.
We went up to Blackberry Farm. Julian, Sean, Glenn and I get on stage together, and they auction this barrel off in 20 shares. It brings in over $150,000. I’m up on the stage next to Julian, and he kind of bumps me with his elbow. He pulls that flask I sent him like three years earlier out of his back pocket. He’s still got it. He’s says, “Best white dog I’ve ever had in my life.”