Earning Their Stripes

Striped Pig Distillery in Charleston, S.C.

By Abby Deering
Photographs by Nickie Cutrona

The Striped Pig Distillery – Charleston’s first local craft distillery since Prohibition – is giving the craft beer scene a run for its money. Since launching in 2013, several others in Charleston have followed suit, and the craft distilling scene shows no signs of slowing. And why should it? Charleston is a city that loves its cocktails and loves to support what’s local.

Each bottle from the Striped Pig Distillery in Charleston, S.C. is hand-signed.

The distillery takes it name from the Temperance tale of a spirited gentleman trying to elude the 1838 Fifteen-Gallon Act, which made the sale of alcohol in any amount under 15 gallons illegal. His ploy? For four pence, patrons could enter his tent to see a striped pig (a painted hog) and in return, receive a free glass of liquor.The Striped Pig Distillery — Charleston’s first local craft distillery since Prohibition — is giving the craft beer scene a run for its money. Since launching in 2013, several others in Charleston have followed suit, and the craft distilling scene shows no signs of slowing. And why should it? Charleston is a city that loves its cocktails and loves to support what’s local.

Like the man in this tale, the team behind Striped Pig — Johnny Pieper, head distiller, and partners Todd Weiss, Jim Craig and Jules Harless (the marketing powerhouse) — are a spirited bunch. But there’s no trickery to their operation.

These guys are about craft, not craftiness, and making honest-to-goodness spirits the classic, old-fashioned way. They specialize in small-batch, premium handcrafted liquors made from local ingredients.

The emphasis on local sourcing is a point of pride for this distillery. The Striped Pig is a certified South Carolina Product, which means that 95 percent of everything used comes from the state. Also at the heart of this distillery is supporting and giving back to the local economy. Even the leftover mash is donated to local farms, including one that teaches children with disabilities where food comes from.

The team handpicked an heirloom 160-year-old specialty corn seed, which they grow on Myer’s Farm in Bowman, S.C. Why corn? Corn simplified the process while also making it more accurate. Pieper said corn gives an interesting sweetness that makes for great high-end cocktails. (Striped Pig products are a big hit with the city’s illustrious mixology crowd.)

Todd Weiss carries a sack of raw material.

When starting a distillery, the first couple of years are the hardest. A distiller can’t make a historically accurate, from-scratch bourbon or whiskey for at least a year or two. But Pieper wasn’t fazed. His philosophy was to start out strong. Don’t claim to have the best bourbon or whiskey — or worse yet, buy someone else’s product, redistill and resell it as your own. Instead, make something awesome right off the bat.

Interested in the corn side, Pieper and Craig focused on vodka and moonshine. Weiss took the lead on the rum. The first batch of bourbon debuted in December 2014 — another limited-edition release is due this year — followed by a spiced rum and their signature gin.

The gin recipe is simple and brilliant. Soaked in dried lavender, orange peel and juniper, the gin has a floral taste — soft orange in the middle, clean lavender on the backend. It’s changing a lot of hearts and minds, turning self-proclaimed gin detesters into believers.

The spiced rum recipe draws inspiration from a pie baking lesson Pieper had with his grandmother. She imparted this secret: there are five ingredients all Americans love — cinnamon, clove, vanilla, allspice and brown sugar. Pieper had an “aha” moment, and the Striped Spiced Rum was born.

Now, you can’t talk about Striped Pig without talking about its no-frills approach 120-proof moonshine, made with 100-percent corn, but no added flavors or sugar.

“It’s short. It’s sweet, and it’s certainly strong,” Pieper said. “I’m going to put it in a nice whiskey bottle — I’m going to give it a little self-respect — because I want people to be able to try what real, authentic corn liquor tastes like. I’m not going to jam it full of stuff. You can do that on your own dime.”

Jim Craig checks the operation of the still that the owners designed.

The stills at Striped Pig are beautiful, originally designed by the team on a cocktail napkin — fitting, indeed. Gleaming stainless steel vats and wooden barrels are connected, as if by hermetic design, by a matrix of copper pipes and an intricate system of levers and valves. The system has a monumental feel, like sculpture, combining both homespun wisdom and an exacting, sophisticated science — all held together by the expert intuition of the Striped Pig distillers. The aesthetic? Country barn meets inventor’s laboratory.

Pieper is adamant about making good, clean booze; it doesn’t have to be complex, but it’s a thoughtful, involved process, using traditional methods.

“We’re not about cutting corners, doing what’s fastest, easiest and makes the most money. We’re about doing it right, every time,” he said. “When I’m making booze, I’m sitting here and it takes about 10 hours. I’ve never missed a cut. I’ve never missed a brew.”

Pieper doesn’t rely on the still’s hydrometers and gauging gadgets, as many others do, for each cut. He tastes everything himself. He and the team hand label each and every bottle. Harless explains this assiduous attention-to-detail best, “The guys are like artists. If they sign their names on something, they’re going to make sure it’s the best possible thing they can make.”

The Striped Pig team didn’t know if the business would take off, or if folks in Charleston would get behind micro-distilled spirits. Well, the word is out. They do. The Striped Pig may be downright quirky and a whole lot funky, but the spirits are clean, honest and deliciously hand-crafted.  E

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