Barstool: Broad Branch Distillery progresses to ‘big boy pants’

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Wooden barrels in the distillery are filled with spirits like apple brandy and bourbon. Broad Branch plans to release rum, rye whiskey and an aged version of Nightlab 1.0 this summer.

Two-year olds are often rambunctious, not easily tamed. This one is smooth and kinda dirty, with a kick at the end.

Typical.

At the end of Friday night tours of Broad Branch Distillery in downtown Winston-Salem, participants get to sample the original Nightlab 1.0, which hit ABC stores in August 2015. It was the first batch of white whiskey the distillery concocted, coming in at a modest 91 proof.

Made from white corn, rye, barley, Louisiana cane sugar and hops —  the predominant ingredient in IPAs — it’s a different experience from the subsequent batch of Nightlab (technically batch No. 6), which is 95 proof and produces a cleaner flavor akin to vodka.

Manager John Fragakis explains the change came with the purchase of a roller mill, giving the distillery the opportunity to grind its own grains instead of purchasing high-quality, pre-ground ones used in the first version of Nightlab.

“Our freshly milled grains yielded our whiskey’s grain-forward flavors and the heft to produce our whiskeys at higher alcohol levels,” Fragakis said.

The recipe is actually much older than 2, going back three generations and nearly 150 years into Patrick County, Va. northeast of Mt. Airy and John Preston Williams. Williams taught his grandson, Frank, to use his first still.

“Frank purchased his first car at age 13,” Fragakis said. “According to his cousin, Frank wisely hid his car from his father so he would not know how much money Frank was making from the operation.”

A born entrepreneur and outlaw, Frank Williams went to jail a couple times for his illegal pastime, dreaming up new recipes while behind bars. He tried to get a distilling permit in the mid-1960s, “at a time when municipalities had no clue how to process such a request,” Fragakis said.

Don Jenkins, one of Broad Branch’s distillers, shows tour participants the water heater, part of the equipment used in the distilling process.

Williams, now nearly 80, is “renowned in the NC foothills area,” but his health largely prevents him from continuing to distill. He met Fragakis and Joe Tappe, the husband of Fragakis’s goddaughter, who agreed to carry on the tradition in their own family. Fragakis’s niece, head of creative design at a large Charlotte ad agency, created the cool, geometric logo with the not-immediately-apparent “BB” in the center.

 Broad Branch Distillery hold $5 tours at 756 N. Trade St. (W-S) on the first and third Fridays of the month and include a tasting. Read more at broadbranchdistillery.com. 

Since opening, Broad Branch has been building its reputation. Nightlab 1.0 earned a bronze medal from the American Craft Spirits Association in 2016. But Fragakis isn’t satisfied.

“Even though some of our visitors prefer the award-winning version which we still have on sale, frankly, it’s not nearly as good as our current Nightlab 1.0, batch 7, which is by far our best and the one we wished were able to send,” he said.

Smashing Violet, the blueberry-soaked version of Nightlab, wasn’t ready in time for this year’s competition. Still, it’s delicious with a squirt of simple syrup and lemon juice.

Broad Branch plans to release rum, rye whiskey and an aged version of Nightlab mid-year. There are some experiments in the works, too, including apple brandy as well as a bourbon that will be ready in four years.

With much still to come, Winston-Salem’s second distillery is starting to hit its stride.

“We are starting to wear our big boy pants to the distillery,” Fragakis boasted. And rightfully so.