You might miss it driving down Edgewood Avenue's main drag full of hipster-chic bars, crumbling facades, and newly renovated loft spaces. Atlanta's first legal distillery in 100 years has already reached legendary status in a year since its opening, as if it's been part of the city and the gentrifying neighborhood it resides in forever. On the day we arrived to chat with brothers Jeff and Craig Moore and Gabe Pilato of Old 4th Distillery, they were preparing for the next day's vodka bottling — 2,100 bottles of vodka to be exact. Jeff, Craig, and Gabe handle every aspect of the distillery's running from manufacturing to answering the phone. It's been a year of bumps in the road, a few missteps, and one all-important purchase, a forklift. But these unwitting pioneers of Atlanta's fledgling distilling industry have made the most of that year, and sat down with Eater Atlanta to reflect on what it means to be first.
How has your first year in business been as Atlanta's first legal distillery in 100 years?
JEFF: This year has gone by extremely quickly. Mostly because we're so busy in the day-to-day. The manufacturing of the spirit is only a small part of our business. We have vendors, taxes, ride-alongs with our distributors — there's so much more to running a distillery than distilling vodka. It's just the three of us. We have no staff. Then there's the added stress of being the first distillery in Atlanta in 100 years. We're out here on our own.
GABE: A lot of the first year was figuring out our roles in the business. You get an email — OK, who's dealing with this? There are days when we are all juggling multiple items. Now our roles are a bit more defined as we've figured out each other's strengths.
What was the first day like walking into the building and distilling your first batch of vodka?
"You're talking about a piece of equipment that can explode and kill you ..."
JEFF: That first day we had hired a consultant to come in and help with the equipment and fermentation process. We also had a rep from CARL, the manufacturer of our still. The deer in the headlights moment came after the first day. We have all the permits, the equipment is here, and those two guys aren't here anymore. That's when you think, what have gotten myself into? You're talking about a piece of equipment that can explode and kill you ...
GABE: Not to mention that it also has $20,000 worth of product inside of it.
CRAIG: Even just cleaning the equipment properly is a three-stage process. Our consultant showed us the really long way to do things. We learned there are easier ways to do it.
GABE: You learn from mistakes. Even our neck labels we apply by hand. On our first bottling run, we were applying them as we filled the bottles. It was a disaster. It took us 12 hours.
Why vodka? Why not start with the gin or whiskey?
JEFF: Gin is sort of the world's first flavored vodka. So you have to make vodka to make gin. The distilling process is everything. You can add more botanicals with gin or age your whiskey longer to enhance the flavor, but with vodka, if you're not good at fermentation, distillation, and blending, it doesn't matter how beautiful your bottle is, it will show in the final spirit.
CRAIG: Vodka comprises of 35 percent of all spirits sold in the United States. Distilling vodka teaches us efficiency. You have to be efficient at making your washes, at producing alcohol through the fermentation process, and distillation methods to get maximum yield out of those fermentations. We also wanted to be competitive in the vodka market, so we priced our spirit at a price point that is not only accessible by bars and restaurants, but consumers. Especially since we spent so much money on our bottles. This means we have to be extra efficient in our distillation process. Learning efficiency in manufacturing a spirit like vodka trickles down to the other spirits you distill.
Most vodkas these days are made from corn. That's the dominant grain used. It's cheap and heavily subsidized. We use cane sugar instead. It's more akin to a potato vodka. There is a lot more flavor and it's less astringent.
"There was some backlash"
JEFF: I found this company called Lula-Westfield. They are a small, independent manufacturer of cane sugar out of Paincourtville, La. We use what they call turbinado. They sent us bags full of sugars to taste and distill with before we landed on the turbinado. It's been nice to support another small business like ours.
Were you nervous about people's reactions when they tried your vodka using sugar cane?
JEFF: Oh, man. Not only are we launching a vodka, we are making it out of cane sugar.
GABE: There was some backlash.
JEFF: You can create vodka out of anything. There are vodkas made out of corn, wheat, potatoes, and even grapes. Sugar cane is the least odd ingredient. Vodka has turned into this odorless, tasteless vehicle for making a drink alcoholic. But its roots are embedded in smooth and complex flavors.
GABE: I think once it became an industrial product shipped on tanker trucks for 80 cents a gallon, that's when it became sort of a standardized, antiseptic, pharmaceutical grade spirit.
JEFF: For a bar like Kimball House to build a group of cocktails around our vodka is a huge compliment. Ours is the only vodka on their shelves. That's saying something.
- Andrew Quigley (center) places empty bottles on a pallet during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Maria Mitteroder tapes up boxes during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Gabe Pilato fills bottles with vodka during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Bottles are filled with vodka during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Andrew Quigley fills bottles with vodka during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Gabe Pilato works the capping machine during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Vounteers help Jeff Moore and Gabe Pilato during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- William Broder moves empty bottles from the staging area to the filling station during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Corks move through a machine as bottles are filled with vodka during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Jeff Moore uses a heat gun to seal bottles of vodka during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Shannon Eggleton (left) puts filled bottles of vodka in a shipping box during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Jeff Moore uses a heat gun to seal bottles of vodka as Shannon Eggleton places them into boxes to be shipped during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
- Reflected in the door to a still, William Broder moves boxes ready to be shipped during bottling day at Old 4th Distillery.
Why are you waiting until 2019 to release your bourbon?
CRAIG: I know people want us to just release the bourbon first, but that's not how we want to roll out that spirit. We really want it to be great, and greatness takes aging and a lot of revenue.
JEFF: We've had our bourbon in barrels since last January. We've been up to our storage facility and tasted it. It's good. It's tempting to release it now. But then we think about what it will taste like in four more years.
GABE: There's no substitute ingredient for time when it comes to whiskey. You can't speed it up. We don't use oak chips or powder to speed up the aging process. Our vodka, and now gin, are our revenue streams, so we can take our time to age our bourbon properly.
When will your gin be on the shelves?
JEFF: We are hoping for distribution by December 11. On shelves by December 15.
We created 14 different gins until we landed on the one we loved and the bartenders who helped us out loved. We took four styles, had bartenders we trusted taste and comment, then made four more from the derivative and so on until we arrived at our final gin. We wanted our gin to work in a Gin and Tonic and a Dirty Martini. The process of finding that balanced gin was worth it in the end.
GABE: I know this term gets floated a lot but, it truly is a balanced gin. It's easy to sip and easy to create a cocktail around. I think Atlanta is really going to love this gin when hits the shelves.
How are you handling your new role as mentors to Atlanta's fledgling distilling industry and what have you learned from this first year?
GABE: You have American Spirit and Independent Distilling who are looking to us now for advice as they begin crafting their spirits in the city. We're the guys we needed a year ago.
CRAIG: We are happy to share our knowledge. We just didn't have that when we started last year. Most of our advice came from distillers in California, other states. But it's a different set of circumstances. Even for a rural distillery in Georgia. Being in the city, we have different issues like proper disposal of grains from the stills or transportation logistics — getting through the narrow streets of Atlanta with a semi is difficult.
JEFF: Distilleries are a very tight-knit group of people who are willing to share information with one another. In Atlanta, we are creating that group among the distillers starting up and sharing our mistakes and successes with them.
We were with American Spirit and Independent recently and had a 10 minute conversation on forklifts. Something we didn't even consider buying when we started up. That was a mistake we learned the hard way.
GABE: Yeah, you're going to need a forklift, so get that now. Instead of what we did which was, I guess we need a forklift to unload and load after a delivery of 25,000 bottles.
JEFF: Our first order was 25,000 bottles. Luckily we had a friend, Peter, who is a collector of amazing equipment. We unloaded an entire 40-foot truck with a backhoe. At the end of the day, we were all like, fork lift. We lease the lot next to us. We only have 1,100 square feet here, and there's very little space in the back to load and unload. We unloaded the truck on the lot next door, lining up the bottles on the ground. It looked like a maze.
GABE: So, distillers of Atlanta, first purchase after you are permitted — fork lift.
CRAIG: We were lucky to get a lease on the lot. It was something we didn't think of during build out — where to store our bottles and pallets.
"We are creating that group among the distillers starting up and sharing our mistakes and successes with them"
Talk about your bottle design decisions.
CRAIG: Bottles are usually a cost-cutting measure. So, buying our bottles at $3 per and shipping from overseas is costly. The coating and screen printing on each bottle are expensive. The glass weighs 100 grams more than most spirit bottles. It's thick. We decided not to go the route of the thinner glass with the paper label. We wanted our bottles to be beautiful on the shelves and durable. Bartenders have to work with this bottle every night. It needs to stand up to wear and tear. We also wanted the bottle to be taller and thinner so it can be easily gripped.
JEFF: The shape of the bottle will remain the same with each spirit we put out. Only the background image and color will change. We want to represent Atlanta in an honorable way and that includes the bottle and the images of the city's iconic, industrial landmarks. The gin bottle goes a step further. The green color is actually a reproduction of an early 20th century Coca-Cola bottle we found here during the build out last year. It was an unexpected tie to Atlanta for the gin.
GABE: These bottles are heirlooms to us. We chose the expense of silk screening the label so that it can be displayed and used daily. Most bartenders remove the labels as they get wet. We want our bottles to be Old 4th Distillery bottles for their entire lives.
What will Year 2 look like for Old 4th Distillery?
JEFF: The fundamental issue for Year 2 is managing our time as it pertains to things outside of the distillery — food and wine festivals, events, interviews, and ride-alongs. These are things we are still learning to manage. I think we will probably hire someone next year to help maintain some organization with our schedules, a person who can help us take care of the details of the day-to-day. We will never hire ourselves out of the manufacturing of our spirits or out of things like ride-alongs with our distributors to bars and restaurants. Nobody makes or knows our spirits better than we do.
CRAIG: We want Old 4th Distillery spirits to represent Atlanta, not just now, but for years to come. That's our overall goal — to still be standing in 100 years.