By Barry Wise Smith
Photos by Brit Huckabay and Janie Shelswell-White
At the beginning of early-era Prohibition in 1915, Alabama put a stop to all legal liquor production in the state. The nationwide ban on sales, production, and importing alcohol followed in 1920. In 2015, after a century, distilling finally returned to the Magic City and has put the city in high spirits.
In 2015, Dr. Jeff Dugas, a founding member of Andrews Sports Medicine and the practice’s managing partner, met a man who told him that Birmingham was the largest city in North America without a distillery. While he wasn’t sure about the veracity of the claim, it piqued his interest enough to start researching distilling in Alabama.
Armed with a chemical engineering degree from NC State, Dugas says, “I didn’t remember a lot about my classes, but I remembered about fermentation and distillation.”
Also a home brewing hobbyist, Dugas decided to take his interest to the next level by bringing a distillery to downtown Birmingham. “I went to the city of Birmingham, and William Bell (the mayor at the time) jumped on it,” he says. Dugas connected with John Cubelic, who became his partner, and they started working on the project in 2016. The pair traveled the country and met with 50 distillers to learn the process and the business. “I was amazed at how gracious and collegial all the distillers were to us,” Dugas remembers.
Dugas and Cubelic then brought on Troy Ball, owner of Troy & Sons distillery in Asheville, North Carolina,and the first woman to open a distillery in the U.S. since Prohibition, and her husband Charlie (Dread River’s first master distiller and a current board member). They bought the best equipment available and began a renovation of the historic Peck & Hills buildingon 7th Avenue South with Williams Blackstock as the architect and Rives Construction.
Named after a mythical river that was said to have once flowed underneath Birmingham, Dread River finally opened the doors to their 24,000-square-foot distilling facility, featuring a 5,000-square-foot bar, a VIP tasting room, and an event space (an outdoor area was added during the pandemic) on Memorial Day weekend in 2019. “It was an arduous process,” Dugas remembers.“Dread River became a metaphor for how hard it was to open a commercial distillery in downtown Birmingham.”
Today, Dread River is the largest distiller in Alabama with a 5,000-liter still that produces whiskey, bourbon, rum, gin, vodka, and blue agave. In 2020, Dread River was ranked as the fifth best new distillery in America according to USA Today 10 Best.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Dread River, like so many businesses in the entertainment world, had to pivot. They began making hand sanitizer and sent it all over the country, giving it away to anyone who needed it. “It was an opportunity to do something right, and we were happy to do it,” Dugas says.
Dread River is the official spirit provider to Regions Field and is licensed to distribute in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, California, and New York, and will be in Georgia soon.
“We want Birmingham to see that they have something special here,” Dugas says. “We’re doing something Birmingham can be proud of.” Dread River offers tastings, tours, a bar menu, and event space. But the priority is making a good product. “We better be damn good,” Dugas says. “Our products need to stand on their own. Everything we make is crafted above the standard of most spirits.”
When Redmont Distilling Co. opened its doors in 2015, it became the first distillery in Birmingham since Prohibition. It all started when two friends decided they wanted to open a distillery/brewery in 2014. Jake Hendon and Jonathan Guidry leased a space downtown (what is now Automatic Seafood) and opened the 1,200-square-foot space in October 2015. They built it out and sold their first bottle in 2016.
In 2018, the landlord sold the building, and Redmont moved to East Avondale and brought on Eleanor Estes as CEO. “I like a challenge,” Estes says. “It was an interesting opportunity. ”They also brought on Alabama native and NBA star Charles Barkley and Montal Morton as investors. “Charles liked the leadership and wanted to invest in a company in his home state and his hometown and wanted to give back,” Estes says.
Guidry left his fulltime job in construction management in 2019 to become Redmont’s head distiller. He took online distilling classes in 2015 and then completed a five-day class in Colorado with Mile Hi Distilling. He used his construction background to lead the facility’s construction.“I was 100 percent involved in that,” he says. The current facility—where they produce Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin—is 3,000 square feet with a 400-gallon tank. When first working on the spirits’ flavor profiles, Guidry put 32 botanicals on an old Ping-Pong table from the Pizitz building. The team tasted until they narrowed it down to four—coriander seed, grains of paradise, juniper berry, and orange peel.
When the pandemic hit, Redmont joined other local distillers to produce hand sanitizer. “We found ways to grow during COVID and ways to move forward safely,” Estes says. And while the pandemic has been a challenge, for Guidry, the best part of Redmont is the team they’ve assembled. “We have a fantastic team, and I love being a part of something that started small and seeing what it’s grown to now. And I love seeing people enjoying the product.”
Currently Redmont is distributed in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi and produces about 500 to 600 cases weekly.
After Hatton Smith graduated from Mountain Brook High School, he was ready for an adventure. “I wanted to go as far and deep into the jungle as I could,” Smith says. Having been to Central America numerous times growing up, Smith, whose family owns and Royal Cup Coffee, moved to Panama and went to work on a remote sustainable agriculture farm. He ran hikes in Chagres National Park and immersed himself in the local culture. “It was a cool experience to live that remotely and live off the land,” he says. “The local people are farmers and have a different approach to their lifestyle.”
Smith befriended the local campesinos (translated as peasant farmers). “They taught me how to use a machete, sharpen it, and move through the woods,” he says. He left Panama to attend Hampden-Sydney College but returned to Panama during college breaks. “After college, I tried my hand at the real world, but it wasn’t working so I went back to Panama,” Smith says.
Back in Panama, Smith found an old still at the edge of the forest. “A guy from Montana had brought it down,” Smith says. “I knew coffee, so I started buying green coffee and roasting beans.” Then using Reddit/Firewater as his resource, Smith figured out how to make rum, harvesting sugar cane off the farm.
Smith started his own small business and sold 20 bottles a day to locals. “The rum was making way more money than the coffee,” Smith recalls. He decided it was time to leave Panama and move back to Birmingham with the goal of growing his rum business. He formed his company, Campesino Rum, on National Rum Day—August 16, 2019. “I took my coffee knowledge and applied it to rum,” Smith says. “I want people to reimagine rum. Campesino has no additives or added sugar. It appeals to the more educated consumer.”
Smith has partners in Barbados and the Caribbean that produce his vintages. “The best rum is made in the tropics,” Smith says. “I work hard, and my product stands alone.
Campesino rum is currently available in Alabama; in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, Tennessee; in Atlanta; and on the Florida Panhandle.