Sutler’s Spirit distillery opens

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Any day now, Scot Sanborn is going to do what nobody has done in Winston-Salem — or the Triad, as far as I can tell — in close to 200 years. Legally, that is.

Sanborn, the man behind Sutler’s Spirit Co., is almost ready to complete the distillation process for his first legal batch of rum, followed soon by an initial gin recipe. After years of tinkering and then several more of seriously pursuing the idea, Sanborn’s building and paperwork are in order. On May 17, he began a rum fermentation that takes 10 to 14 days, meaning it may already be complete.

He couldn’t be more excited.

Besides his “master distiller” — his shaggy-haired dog, Moose — Sanborn is the sole driving force behind Sutler’s Spirit. He learned how to put up drywall, built the tables and, of course, honed his distilling abilities.

A row of dented drums filled with molasses rest a few feet from his two stills — without a forklift at the time, the DIY approach to getting the barrels into the building had proved difficult. Luckily for Sanborn, the damage was only cosmetic though dings and flattened curves are still quite visible.

His larger rim still looks like it is made of copper, stands about a head taller and is much more voluptuous than Sanborn.

“This is my girl,” he said, one hand gently resting on the Portuguese still. “One of them.”

A foot away, a much smaller still for gin will produce higher proof alcohol than its sister still. Circular windows jut out of a slender tube that rises vertically from the still, the alcohol purifying as it ascends each level of the contraption. It looks like a periscope and combined with a brass band.

SONY DSC“You can see alcohol dancing in there, and it’s really fun,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn, who lives in Summerfield, decided to locate the distillery in Winston-Salem after finding an ideal space in the West End Mill Works, a renovated building where he is directly across the hall from Hoots Roller Bar.

The combination of strong city support and grassroots development and entrepreneurship in Winston-Salem only affirmed his decision, creating “a perfect storm” for a new business like his.

“Winston was awesome to work with,” he said, describing how city staff helped him meet codes for things like a fireproof room for storage. “They really were.”

Sanborn is legally allowed to give tastings in the space, and he plans to build a tasting room with a bar and seats at one end.

If NC House Bill 842 passes, distilleries such as Sutler’s Spirits will be allowed to sell bottles on site rather than solely through ABC stores, something that Sanborn said would be a huge benefit. The bill passed the state house a year ago, but there has been no action on the issue since the state senate referred it to the committee on rules and operations.

Sanborn went to Randolph Community College’s renowned photography program, and in casual conversation he often tells people that he has been working in commercial photography and advertising.

The full story, which may not surprise anyone who’s seen his sharp jawline or automatic posing, is that Sanborn worked as a model for 17 years. He had wanted to be behind the camera rather than in front of it, but making a living as a professional photographer is dicey.

Modeling is a young man’s game, and Sanborn had picked up distilling as a garage hobby as his days in the industry waned.  Though interested in pursuing his interest as a legitimate business venture, the level of regulations initially scared him off.

But he started volunteering to do things like sweeping at other distilleries in exchange for informal lessons on the trade. That, and some pointers from the team at Carriage House Apple Brandy in Lenoir, helped the dream seem feasible.

With some experience in hand and Moose at his side, Sanborn settled on a historically inspired name. Sutlers, he said, were civilians in the Revolutionary, Civil and Mexican-American wars that traveled with troops and supplied miscellaneous goods, including alcohol, that the military didn’t provide.

Given Sanborn’s love for visiting old battlefields with his father and the depth of time that has elapsed since the area’s last authorized distillery, the name fits.

It will still be several months before his concoctions are available to the public, he said — allowing time for additional paperwork, development and calls to ABC boards — but in the meantime Sanborn is already diligently making some history of his own.