Craft breweries and distilleries – have you noticed them popping up in neighborhoods near you? They seem to be everywhere – and they are drawing crowds of people looking to enjoy craft beer and creative spirits produced by local entrepreneurs. And this desire for craft beverages is no more apparent anywhere than in the neighborhoods of Charlotte, NC.

The Olde Mecklenberg BreweryDuring a recent trip to North Carolina, my wife Stephanie and I spent a few days in Charlotte. Even though it was on my insistence that we check out some of the local breweries and distilleries, Stephanie was actually quite impressed. I decided to visit Charlotte’s lower South Side (LoSo) neighborhood where the Queen City’s craft brewing scene all began in 2009 with the opening of The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.

OMB’s founder, John Marrino, called upon his four years of “hands-on” research while living in Germany, and decided to open a German-style brewery. Charlotte was one of the last big cities in the country without its own brewery, so there was fertile ground for Marrino’s idea to serve fresh, local beer. In Marrino’s words, “Not everything can be local, but beer can and should be.”

German beer purity laws

Strictly adhering to the German beer purity laws, “Reinheitsgebot,” OMB quickly developed a large group of beer drinkers thrilled to savor authentic German-style beer freshly made by one of their own, rather than from one of the “mega” beer conglomerates who have succeeded in flooding the market with inferior, “Americanized” brews from European locales.

After moving across the street in July of 2015 to a much larger facility, OMB now boasts an authentic German Brauhaus serving German fare including many of the traditional wursts as well as American favorites. Also extremely popular is OMB’s 8-acre Biergarten, reminiscent of the Munich biergartens. We were there around noon on a Saturday, and the Biergarten and Brauhaus both were packed.

The Brewery utilizes a ten-tank cold storage system, feeding 24 taps. My favorite beer from OMB is the Copper Amber Ale. It has a great color and flavor profile, and it’s very drinkable coming in with an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 4.8% and an IBU (international bitterness units) of 30 – just enough hops to satisfy this hophead without being too bitter for those that don’t like an overly hopped beer. (Note: when an IBU starts to get above about 40-45 units, you are getting into the range of a “hoppy” beer.) My second choice is OMB’s Fat Boy Baltic Porter. The aptly named Fat Boy is a hefty beer “weighing” in with an ABV of 8.0% and an IBU of 30.

American spirits – from an Irish tradition

Just across the street from OMB is Mecklenberg County’s oldest distillery, the Great Wagon Road Ollie Mulligan and his German-crafted stillDistillery. Not only is it the oldest, but the first distillery in North Carolina to have its own bar, The Broken Spoke. Ollie Mulligan, a native of County Kildare, Ireland – and a perfect example of Irish gregariousness – hails from a long history of whiskey makers. His passion for fine spirits crafted with care and tenderness is evident immediately. His well-earned pride for his product is matched only by his pleasure in having guests get a taste of his whiskey and vodka.

One sip of Mulligan’s American Single Malt Whiskey, Rua (Gaelic for “red”) and I knew this man takes distilling seriously. Rua is made from 100% premium malted barley, distilled 8 times in his German-made copper still, then cut with artisan spring water from the mountains of North Carolina. The whiskey is then aged in new American oak barrels, resulting in a smooth, well-rounded whiskey with just the right amount of spicy heat.

Rua is a unique whiskey – reminiscent of a fine Scotch, but without the smokiness; somewhat like an Irish whiskey, but spicier, more complex; not as sweet as bourbon, and not as spicy as a rye. Rua settles in nicely among all these whiskeys, to find a smoothness and taste profile all its own.

Great Wagon Road's spirits - Ban, Rua, and DrumlishAgain drawing on his roots of Irish distillers, Mulligan also distills a true Irish specialty, Poitin (pronounced “put-cheen”). First produced in the early 17th century in small homemade pot stills in remote areas of Ireland just like American moonshine, poitin, or “pot liquor,” was outlawed in Ireland in 1661 due to its volatile and dangerous nature. It did not become legal again until the 1990’s. Great Wagon Road’s Drumlish, distilled with Mulligan’s state-of-the-art equipment following a traditional family recipe, is clear, bright, and superbly smooth, especially considering it is akin to its American version,  “white lightning.”

GWR’s final spirit is Ban (Gaelic for “white”) – an ultra-smooth vodka. Ban is the result of carefully fermenting premium malted wheat, then distilling in a Kothe copper pot. The spirit is then run through 19 plates of the copper columns, cut with that NC mountain spring water, and finally slowly filtered through three and a half feet of activated charcoal.

Public tours of the Great Wagon Road Distillery are available on Thursdays and Fridays at 6 pm and at noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm on Saturdays.

CLT’S Belgian-style beers

You don’t have to wait long to get to enjoy a hand-crafted cocktail using GWR’s spirits, as The Broken Spoke is right next door to the distillery. With a welcoming, comfortable, “industrial-chic” motif, The Broken Spoke is a great place to flop into one of the many comfy couches and sitting chairs and enjoy a great cocktail or one of The Spoke’s premium craft beers.

After visiting GWR and The Broken Spoke, we didn’t have very far to go to get to the next craft brewery –The sugar Creek Brewing Company just across the parking lot. The brewers at Sugar Creek Brewery, which took over the original location of Olde Mecklenberg, focus their talents on crafting Belgian Style beers. Famous for their deep complexity and unique flavors, Belgian Style beers have earned their way to many a beer aficionado’s favorite beers list. Brewers often use aged hops, fruit or spices to create complex, interesting brews. Various strains of long-held yeast cultures impart a unique, but distinctive flavor and texture to Belgian Style beers.

Sugar Creek prides itself on producing a fine line of fresh, quality Belgian Style beers that have beer lovers in Charlotte convinced that local means fresh – even if you’re talking Belgium.

Even more brewing neighborhoods

Although we didn’t get to visit any of the microbreweries in NoDa (refers to the neighborhood of North Davidson), another of CLT’s hipster neighborhoods, nor one of NoDa Brewing Company’s two taprooms, I did try NoDa’s 2014 World Beer Cup Gold Medal winning Hop, Drop, and Roll. A hop-heavy IPA with an ABV of 7.2% and an IBU of 81, this brew is nectar for any hop head like me.

Charlotte may be a bit of a newcomer to the craft brewing and distilling scene, but if the brewers and distillers in the LoSo and NoDa neighborhoods are any indication, Charlotteans can look forward to enjoying some great craft brews and distinctive small-batch spirits for a long time.

Photos by Stephanie Sylva