ASHEVILLE — A WNC brewery taps into the vibrant distilling industry.
In 2016, UpCountry Brewing Company opened in West Asheville, and a Brevard bar opened two years later. This year, a collaboration motivated the reintroduction of not only a craft brewery but also a craft distillery.
UpCountry Brewing Company has launched a line of agave liquor, gin, rum, vodka and whiskey, created by distiller Mark Harris.
What sets these spirits apart is Harris’ careful selection of quality ingredients and technique that allows only the best parts of the fermented product to go into each batch.
“It’s the attention to detail that Mark puts into it,” said John Cochran, owner of UpCountry.
Cochran is the co-founder and former co-owner of Terrapin Brewing Co., launched in Athens, Georgia, where he worked with Harris.
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In 2009, conversations about brewing and distilling inspired Harris to take his knowledge of beer making and apply it to making alcohol.
“We were making all this great beer, and I wanted to know what the whiskey made from these beers would taste like,” Harris said. “I would take this sugar which was the recipe for beer, the brewer’s grains and I would make a white whiskey out of it.”
“I started taking batches of beer, taking the wort sugar and fermenting them separately and making whiskeys out of them to see what they would look like compared to what other whiskeys were on the market. I had a good time doing this.
The whiskey was just the start. The more he groped for his newfound interest, the more he discovered that he had a knack for the craft.
He thought about what else he could do with the ingredients.
The bakery that supplied the brewery with spent grain bread became a source of molasses that Harris would use to make rum.
“I immediately fell in love with the rum production on the first two batches we made,” Harris said. “Using the best ingredients at all levels really distinguished what we were doing (what) a lot of distilleries – especially commercial distilleries – were doing.”
Vodka and agave spirits came next, and the collection kept growing and maturing.
Now, there are different varieties of rum made from molasses and cane sugar.
UpCountry also offers a five-year whiskey aged rum and a four-year wine aged rum with different wine finishes.
Many other ideas are bubbling for the future. Harris plans to release nearly 30 more varieties of rum over the next few years, he said. A barrel aging program for agave spirit is in development.
“We’ll have some unique stuff that nobody’s ever imagined before,” Harris said.
An advantage of the smaller scale distillation is that Harris has more control over suppressing the start and end of fermentation, leaving the best components that come from the middle of a series. It makes for a “nice, clean artisanal spirit,” he said.
“Great commercial spirits are pretty much anything that comes out of fermentation,” Harris said. “Their fermentation is really focused on doing it as quickly as possible, so they produce a lot of off-flavors.”
UpCountry’s distilled spirits are Harris’ opportunity to change the idea of what alcohol is and can be when crafted with care.
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“As people have always said, alcohol is an acquired taste,” Harris said. “Often it’s an acquired taste because it’s not very good. It can be done so much better than what we have come to know in the world if you really put your mind to it. That’s what my passion has been, just trying to create the best spirits possible.
UpCountry spirits are available in 750ml bottles. Prices vary by spirit and age, but average $55/bottle, Cochran said. Spirits are available for purchase to go to taprooms. Customers can order shots or one of the signature cocktails, which differ at each taproom.
UpCountry’s craft beers are available in retail stores across the Carolinas, and this summer distribution expanded to northern Georgia. Flagship Scamper IPA and Blackcurrant gose are two of the brand’s most popular beers. New and seasonal beers are in weekly rotation.
The Asheville taproom operates as a taproom, bar, and restaurant with a Grata Pizzeria menu. Live music performances and events, such as trivia, add to being a neighborhood hangout.
UpCountry Brewery and Distillery
Where: 1042 Haywood Road, Asheville
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday
12pm-10pm Wednesday and Thursday
12pm-11pm Friday and Saturday
Info: For more details, visit upcountrybrewing.com or follow @upcountrybrew on Instagram.
Tiana Kennell is a food and restaurant reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @PrincessOfPage. Help support this type of journalism by subscribing to the Citizen Times.