It’s a story only the wild circumstances of this year could have wrought. It begins with Asheville’s most well-known industry: beer. Often synonymous with craft-tourism, Asheville’s breweries fill an even larger economic role.
“A lot of people might not realize that Asheville is a major supply hub for the whole East Coast,” said Dave Angel, owner of Elevated Mountain Distilling Co. in Maggie Valley. “They’re not just making local beer for local people.”
When restaurants and bars along the Eastern Seaboard were shuttered in early spring, Asheville breweries kept kegging their product, waiting, hoping for the market to open back up.
“Big breweries in Asheville had to make sure they were ready to launch as soon as Delaware or New Jersey or whatever state opened up. They had to have beer ready to go into that market,” said Angel.
As 15 days turned to weeks turned to months, and it became clear that things wouldn’t be the same for a long time, those waiting kegs began to pass their sell-by date of 45 days.
“Cans and bottles were no problem, but restaurants and bars mainly serve draft beer,” Angel said. Breweries were stuck. They had the supply, but no demand and nowhere to ship it. Hundreds of kegfuls of Asheville’s top-quality beer seemed destined for dumping, to become just another casualty in the growing litany of COVID losses. The overwhelming sentiment: what a waste. Enter Mr. Angel.
“They actually approached me — one of the major breweries in Asheville,” he said. “They had literally thousands and thousands of gallons that had expired. The beer may not have been right but the whiskey, the alcohol in it is perfect. So they gave it to me instead of throwing it away, and that’s what I’m working with.”
The way you make whiskey is essentially to make beer — what distilleries call mash — and then to distill most of that away until you’re left with a high-concentration alcoholic beverage. This process creates a clear liquor called white dog whiskey — what people often refer to incorrectly as moonshine — which is then barrel-aged until it becomes the darker drink you’d recognize as whiskey proper. Understood in distillery terms, the Asheville brewery’s offer was basically for a massive supply of free, quality mash.
“They have to write it off, they can’t sell it because it’s expired,” said Angel. “So they’d rather see it go to a good use than to just dump it. I’m very fortunate with that. I still have to pay to distill it and for the propane, the labor — it’s an expense we hadn’t planned on. But they’ve just made it so practical that we’re figuring out how to do that. Literally we get about 2,000 gallons every week. We started doing this mid-July; we already have about 45 full barrels of whiskey, made from beer. That’s 2,400 gallons of finished whiskey.”
There’s a reason most people haven’t heard of making whiskey from craft beer: the process is normally far too costly.
“There’s a lot of distilleries that have dabbled in it,” Angel said. “The problem is that the grain used in beer is a much more premium grain than what you use to make whiskey. So it’s much more expensive.”
COVID acts as an unexpected boon here. Because the pandemic’s closures rendered those thousands of gallons of beer worthless as such, Angel suddenly had access to a higher-quality mash than he could have dreamed of in pre-pandemic times.
“It saves us a lot of money,” he said. “Normally I have to buy grain, cook my own beer, and then distill it, ferment it — but now I just go straight to distilling it. So it saves a lot of time and money because essentially they’ve made that mash for me.”
With the ordinarily impractical cost of brewing such a mash out of the way, the opportunity to create something special had fallen right into his lap.
“Making whiskey’s just like making a cake,” said Angel. “The ingredients that go in it define what the final cake is. So it’s not like we can just use this to make our regular whiskey — it’s a unique whiskey that we’ll create.”
The white dog whiskey Elevated Mountain distills from Asheville beer is unlike any drink I’ve ever had. A sip, and you’re struck with an almost creamy sweetness intermingled with the hard bite of 135-proof alcohol. This sweetness stays even as the whiskey froths hotly down your throat. So far, so normal — everything you’d expect from high-concentration premium liquor. The aftertaste caught me by surprise, however. The genuine and unmistakable flavor of craft beer — I kid you not — starts to emerge a few seconds after swallowing. It is magnificent. I’m far from a connoisseur; in fact, I’ve been more than indifferent to most liquor I’ve tried. One sample of this made me a convert.
That this whiskey exists is due entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic and quick-thinking creativity on the part of Angel and his brewery partners. It’s yet another example of how local businesses have managed to adapt and thrive around this difficult time’s silver linings.
“COVID’s been a blessing and a curse both,” said Angel. “Tourism has bounced back a lot. There were a few months there where it was slow, and people weren’t sure. But people have figured out how to travel again, more and more people are figuring out how to work from home. We have to be smart about doing business. People do need to social distance, they do need to wear masks, but if we’re smart and responsible, the economy can stay healthy.”
Though Elevated Mountain’s special whiskey has to barrel-age for a couple of years before they sell it, they’re already looking for names. In honor of the unique circumstances surrounding their whiskey, they’re hoping to call it something Asheville-themed. Message them on Facebook @ElevatedMountain to offer suggestions.