Distillery business returns to Atlanta

It’s been more than a century since the work of fermenting, distilling and bottling spirits was legally practiced in Atlanta.

But inside a narrow brick storefront on Edgewood Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward, Old Fourth Distillery claims the mantle of the city’s first distillery since Prohibition.

Brothers Jeff and Craig Moore partnered with friends Gabe Pilato, Justin Gray and Andy DuVall, put up their life savings, and, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, completed construction on the distillery and tasting room, now open to the public for weekly tours.

This week, O4D Hand Crafted Vodka, labeled a “Fine Southern Spirit,” will be stocked for the first time at Atlanta bars and restaurants such as Rathbun’s and the Luminary, and beverage stores, including Green’s and Tower, where it will retail for around $25-$30 per bottle.

The Moore brothers grew up in Dunwoody before leaving for college and jobs, and how they came to make vodka in the Old Fourth Ward isn’t a simple story.

Perched in a window seat at the front of the O4D tasting room, Jeff Moore pointed to another brick building across the street.

It’s the headquarters of Mooring Tech Inc., the business the brothers opened together in 2003, after moving back to Atlanta. A provider of Panasonic Toughbook laptops and accessories to law enforcement and EMS accounts, it’s also the economic engine that drives the distillery.

“We’ve been on Edgewood since 2005, almost 10 years now,” Jeff Moore said. “We got in fairly early, before there were bars and restaurants like Sound Table or Church or anything like that here.’’

The Moores took over what is now the O4D space in 2008, with the intent of expanding their Toughbook business. But the recession stalled those plans, and the building remained empty for several years.

Inspired by the growing craft brewing scene in Atlanta, they wondered what it would take to open a distillery in the city. Then they hired Sard and Leff, a prominent Atlanta alcoholic beverage licensing and regulatory compliance law firm, to help them negotiate the legal hurdles.

“There was nothing on the books that said you couldn’t start a distillery here.” Jeff said. “In Georgia, we already have a number of small distilleries. City to city, things differ greatly. But it turned out that the city of Atlanta was ready to have something like this, and I think the craft breweries sort of paved the way.”

Two years ago, the Moores began the build-out. After that, they ordered a custom-fabricated copper and stainless steel column still from Germany, and brewing and fermentation equipment from Canada.

“All of the equipment is of the highest quality you can buy,” Jeff said. “We toured a lot of small distilleries like our own, trying to find where their bottlenecks were, and what they would do better if they were starting over.”

Besides becoming the first distillery in the city since Prohibition, O4D just might be the smallest, anywhere.

“We are operating in a very, very small space,” Jeff said. “The distillery is around 1,100 square feet. We have about another 500 square feet in the tasting room. We might hold a world record for smallest distillery in terms of actual footprint.”

Another of O4D’s distinguishing quirks is its use of cane sugar from a small mill in Louisiana as the fermentable base for its vodka recipe.

“I don’t think there’s another vodka maker out there working with the same base ingredients that we are,” Jeff said. “People use corn or potatoes or wheat. But that requires you to have some way of getting rid of your waste. When we run cane sugar through the fermentation process, what’s left over is basically distilled water. Also, sugar is easy to store.”

Beyond the practical considerations, sugar seems to give O4D vodka a signature hint of rummy sweetness in what is usually considered a neutral spirit.

“It’s the taste profile that we have created with the cane sugar wash, running it through the still multiple times, and doing cold filtration,” Jeff said, explaining the labor-intensive process. “We’re not trying to strip out the taste, which a lot of vodka makers are looking to do. We are doing a neutral spirit, but we’re leaving some of the flavor.”

Craig Moore, who had been puzzling over a fermentation problem in the distillery all morning, took a break to join the conversation. With a business degree from the University of Georgia, he oversees the finances at O4D.

But, when it comes to producing vodka, it’s all hands on deck, the brothers said.

“Craig and I have completely abandoned our day jobs across the street,” Jeff said. “This is all we do every day. And we’ve been doing it every day for almost two months now. It is hard work. We don’t have any employees. Because of the amount of money we’ve invested in this company, we have to do this with our own sweat equity and our partners.”

“We’re north of a million bucks, and maybe another million in our time over the past two years,” Craig said. “Jeff and I have invested all of our life savings. We’d drive ourselves nuts if we started thinking about what kind of profit we were making per bottle at this point. But, for us, it’s about the value of the brand, and the value of what we’ve built.

“From there, it’s really about bolstering our manufacturing capability,” he said. “It’s about being able to meet what we expect to be pretty tremendous demand. We worked really hard over the past month, and we produced about 2,000 bottles. We realized pretty quickly that if we don’t boost that pretty fast, this is going to be a very expensive hobby.”

The long-term goal for O4D is also to produce a high-quality gin with its own blend of botanicals, then create a whiskey and, ultimately, a bourbon that will be barrel-aged.

The brothers said they take pride in the idea that their spirits are handmade, from mixing the sugar and water base, to the painstaking process of separating what distillers call “heads” and “tails” from the “hearts” — the best part of the still run that is filtered and hand-bottled.

“Our vodka will serve as a base for our gin,” Craig said, “and learning how to make good vodka is really the first step toward learning how to make whiskey. We hope this will be a longstanding company. First, we’ll see how long that business across the street can prop this one up.”

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