By John Trump
What began with a New Year’s resolution between friends is now a unique distillery, which makes a traditional Carolina white whiskey and an aromatic, ultra-smooth and delicious American gin.
Jon Keener — a self-ascribed ‘engineering nerd’ — is one of the owners of Raleigh’s Pinetop Distillery, nestled near a popular brewery in a gritty yet artsy industrial-style strip mall just miles from the state Capitol.
He began a recent Saturday tour of his cozy yet efficient distillery with a story about friends, who concocted the resolution to start a distillery in a state with a history deep and rich in moonshine culture but mostly unfriendly laws toward making and marketing legal spirits.
“Why go at it half-ass?” he told me about a year ago. “Go at it full bore, and do something real with it. Being from North Carolina, we wanted to be as locally sourced and North Carolina–centric as we can, and really try to create something unique that harks back to the way things used to be made, when it was really handcrafted.”
Pinetop is a slang term for moonshine and an ode to the state tree of North Carolina, the tall and majestic longleaf pine.
Keener calls Pinetop “a raw whiskey,” a classic bourbon recipe made with grains from Chatham and Wake Counties. “The labeling and bottling is set up to reinforce and evoke that. We’re North Carolina proud. We’ve got everything we need here to produce great spirits.
Pinetop employs a small continuous column still, as well as a fractioning column, to produce the clean, elegant whiskey.
Grain to glass.
“We go back to the old way liquor was made in North Carolina,” he said on the recent Saturday.
Pinetop redistills some select heads and tails, which Keener sees as a sort of reverse sour mash, which promotes consistency from bottle to bottle.
“We’re not buying industrial-produced alcohol and just kinda flavoring it. North Carolina has a very long liquor tradition, legal and illegal. We’re trying to take it back and do it the old way, pre-Prohibition.”
Eventually, Pinetop will release an aged product — or, as Keener calls it, “a proper whiskey.”
The Pinetop white whiskey serves as the base for the mouthwatering gin. Gin can be made a number of ways — baskets and maceration among them — but Pinetop simply places the botanicals in the continuous still. The guys use just a handful of botanicals, but the juniper is prominent on the nose and palate, accompanied by subtle notes of citrus and rye.
Otherwise, particularly when based off a grain-neutral spirit, the flavors can become muddy and nondescript, Keener says.
“The complexity of the botanicals are what define the gin. When you pick the right group of botanicals, it can really complement the flavors from the mash, and that’s what we look for,” Keener told a small group gathered for the Saturday tour.
“If you have a complex, or at least very tasty base liquor … all you need is four or five botanicals — in our case, six, botanicals.
Love your gin and tonic all the way to the bottom, says Keener.
“Because I’m hoping you’ll have another one.”