On any given day during juniper berry season, you can find Jimmy Sharp foraging for berries along the Selma highway trying to gather a year’s supply before the birds get them. The red cedar grows throughout the southeast and produces the berries that Jimmy plans on using for his craft gin. It’s not just the juniper berries that are being locally sourced. The Sharps are also using Alabama cane syrup, Chilton County peaches and local pecans.
The South has had a long love affair with American-made spirits, especially bourbon. I like bourbon, so I was disheartened to hear that Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam were no longer going to be American-made spirits. Earlier this year, it was announced that a Japanese company would take over the ownership and production of these brands. The tradition of the American distillery runs deep in the southeastern part of our country. This is why I am glad to see the emergence of the southern small craft distillery. We are welcoming a new distiller to Opelika, Alabama in the next few months, so I met with owner Jimmy Sharp to learn about the John Emerald Distilling Company.
Jimmy Sharp and his father, John Sharp, were running a successful custom venetian plaster business out of Montgomery, Alabama until they had the idea they would like to dedicate their time and talents to making a business out of their hobby brewing. Jimmy and his wife had been blessed with their first child, and a business requiring less travel was becoming more important to the Sharps. They had seen the growth of the craft brewery industry in Alabama take off in the past few years, and realized they needed a different approach. Alabama doesn’t have a long history of legal distilling, so the Sharps decided to develop a distinct Alabama-style whiskey. They refer to it as “Alabama style” because it isn’t a pure bourbon nor a scotch. It is a blend of the two processes enhanced with local flavors of pecan and peach to create a unique product. They traveled over the next two years between Colorado, Chicago and finally the Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown, Scotland to learn first-hand the art of distilling. They decided to build their distillery in Opelika’s downtown arts and entertainment district after meeting local developer, Richard Patton. Here they found a growing, entrepreneurial community built around small businesses, local arts and a love of the redevelopment of small town Alabama.
The John Emerald Distilling Company is named after Jimmy’s grandfather, and all the products are named after different family members as a way of honoring family and bringing their spirits to their products. There is John’s Alabama Single Malt, Hugh Wesley’s Gin, Spurgeon’s Rum and Gene’s Spiced Rum. They are also developing a peach liqueur and experimenting with a muscadine brandy with ingredients sourced from a local winery (Whippoorwill Vineyards, Notasulga, Alabama). When you are a small, independent company, you can be creative.
The distillery is set to open this Spring offering tours, with a tasting room and a program to share their knowledge through apprenticeships similar to the ones they participated in while learning the craft. At the time of our interview, the building was big and empty. It was hard to imagine the final business. I was shown where the tasting room and the state of the art maturation room would be. It takes vision to see past the empty space, and I am glad the Sharp’s had their vision. Production is set to begin in March, with their first whiskey available late this summer or early fall.