Robbie Delaney probably wasn’t the first person who ever got an idea for a business while he scanned an in-flight magazine at 30,000 feet. He might not have even been the only one on that particular flight from Texas to North Carolina toying with the idea of starting something new, but the difference is that Delaney got off the plane and did something about it.
Just 27 at the time, with a degree in construction management from East Carolina University and working as a project engineer on a construction job in Texas, Delaney was looking for a way to spend less time on out-of-state job sites and more time in Charlotte with his fiancée, Caroline.
The in-flight article touted the success of craft breweries and predicted that the next logical step in the industry’s evolution would be craft spirits. It gave Delaney an idea—he wanted in on that next wave of success.
Delaney, a beer drinker, got the idea to make rum from his friend, Scott Huff. “But there was a big difference in our intentions,” jokes Delaney. “I wanted to start a business. Scott wanted to learn how to make alcohol.”
The article listed some serious impediments to starting a distillery: huge bond requirements and start up costs that could exceed $200, 000. Originally Delaney thought he might have to find investors but after researching the industry, its regulations and how liquor was made, he changed his mind.
“I realized I didn’t need to buy a still; I could make one,” says Delaney. “There was information online and in books but I really learned how to build it the way I learned carpentry—you look at how things are put together.”
Delaney’s original still held 35 gallons; his new one holds 150. He and his friend Jon Drexler built the new still using mostly reclaimed parts.
“The tank is an old dairy tank,” explains Delaney. “It took about three months to build and cost a fraction of commercially manufactured stills.”
The old still is now a memory, its parts cannibalized for the new one. But Delaney can still remember the day he used the old still to make his first batch of rum.
“We had close to 20 people there and I had my fingers crossed because I’d never even given it a test run so I really didn’t know what the thing was going to do.
“It started to spit and I believe the first batch got up to 85 percent alcohol which was pretty good given I’d never run a still before. Not all of it was great alcohol, but we did get some that was respectable tasting. I said to myself, ‘We can actually do this. This is going to happen.’”
The Work Before the Work
That was February of 2012, but a lot of work preceded that moment. From his years in construction, Delaney was used to obtaining building permits, but nothing prepared him for the paperwork involved in opening a distillery.
“My federal permitting was 78 pages long, mostly handwritten,” says Delaney. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But you can’t even apply for a federal permit until your equipment is at least 90 percent installed, so you have to start locally.”
Delaney found 500 square feet of warehouse space in Belmont’s Riverside Complex. “I moved into a facility but I had to modify it to fit the equipment,” he continues. “I had to get a zoning permit and a building permit to do the needed construction. Once I got a certificate of occupancy from the county, I could install my equipment, and once the equipment was installed, I could start the federal permitting process.”
Delaney turned in his application for federal permitting in November of 2011 and received approval in a record two months. When he received his state permit on February 12, 2012, Muddy River Distillery became the first rum distillery in North Carolina.
In keeping with the state’s colorful moonshining heritage, legal craft distilleries are starting to pop up in many parts of North Carolina. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC) lists 13 distilleries statewide. Perhaps not surprisingly, many are grouped in the western mountain counties best known for their moonshining history.
Delaney welcomes the new competition, preferring to see other craft distillers as a way to help grow the industry. “The craft distillers are trying to band together to influence legislation in much the same way craft beer brewers have gotten together,” says Delaney.
He’s also found camaraderie among others in the growing industry. “When I was starting out, Carolina Distillery, makers of Carriage House Brandy, gave me a lot of help on the regulation and process side,” he continues. “They were a huge influence and welcomed me with open arms into North Carolina spirits.
“Right now there’s a guy who calls me who wants to start his own rum distillery. He’s got his facility and equipment and we talk. We’re friends.”
Delaney appears to have camaraderie and support from many. Neighbor Alternative Beverage helped Delaney source sweeteners. Drexler, who helped him build the still, drew up blueprints for their new facility. Good friends painted walls and Delaney’s mom, a designer, is decorating the front showroom and tasting bar and lounge area.
At 6,100 square feet, the new space, in the same business complex, allows Muddy River space for their free distillery tours and rum tastings as well as room to grow. And while Delaney kept his day job in the first months of business, the only construction he does now is on the new facility.
“We built the floor and the wall behind the still and moved all the plumbing and electrical to behind the wall,” explains Delaney. “This used to be an old dyeing mill and it was a terrible looking place. In fact, before we started fixing it up, the show ‘Homeland’ was looking at it as a location for a torture scene because it was that creepy.”
Delaney doesn’t think it’s creepy anymore and in fact, he slept in a tent in the warehouse a couple of times last week, putting in even longer hours than the usual 16-hour long run days because of increased demand for Muddy River’s latest product.
The company’s first product, Carolina Rum, was launched in early September of 2012. At $19.95 for a 750 milliliter bottle, Delaney describes it as a mid-range white rum. Traditionally, white rum is used for mixing, but Delaney believes that his Carolina Rum brand is sweet and smooth enough for sipping.
Delaney has reinvested revenues from Carolina Rum sales back in to the business, allowing the expansion into the new facility and the development of Muddy River’s latest offering, a dark sipping rum called Queen Charlotte’s Reserve.
Queen Charlotte Reserve is aged in American white oak barrels with a medium char or toast inside and sells for $27.95 per 750 milliliter bottle. To ensure product consistency, Delaney only uses new barrels from the same cooperage for each batch.
Making a Name
Muddy River Distillery is a husband and wife operation. Delaney married his fiancée a year last July and while Caroline Delaney is often the ‘last say’ in quality control, Robbie Delaney defers to her judgment as to what batches pass the final taste test. She is also the sales and marketing side of the company. Those responsibilities include navigating the state’s ABC system.
North Carolina is one of 17 control states. All sale, purchase, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession of alcohol in the state are controlled by the agency which consists of 165 local boards operating 418 retail stores.
Each board decides what their stores will carry so Caroline, who studied accounting at North Carolina State University, gave up her accounting job and now travels across the state, meeting with and presenting to local boards.
“The biggest thing with ABC is forming a relationship,” explains Caroline. “We tell them that we’re just normal people, not a huge conglomerate. When you’ve met Robbie and me, you’ve met our whole company. Many of the boards understand that and they will make an effort to push our product.”
“We’re in over 300 liquor stores now,” adds Robbie, “mainly in the larger cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington, but some of the smaller boards are our biggest promoters.”
Bars and restaurants are also the focus of Caroline’s marketing efforts. Muddy River rums are now served in restaurants around the state including locally at Harry’s Grill and Tavern in Ayrsley, the Dandelion Market downtown, and at Halcyon Restaurant in the Mint Museum.
Alexander Michael’s Restaurant and Tavern and the Corner Pub, only a brief walk from the Delaneys’ home in Fourth Ward, also carry the rums and are big supporters of Muddy River Distillery.
Down the street from the distillery, The String Bean on North Main in Belmont has been carrying Carolina Rum since it was first available.
“We take a lot of pride in selling local beers and wines so when a distillery opened up, we wanted to support them as well,” says Nate Helton, front of house manager and liquor and wine buyer for the String Bean. “We’re unique because we carry so many local items in our market and incorporate local fresh ingredients in our menu. We use Muddy River rums in some of our drinks and the customers really like it. They’re very interested in trying something local.”
The Delaneys have plans for expansion into other states. “We’ve already got the permit for South Carolina sales but marketing in South Carolina is very different because it’s not a control state,” says Robbie. “Most companies work through a broker but we figured we might be too small right now to get much attention from a brokerage. That’s why we created our own brokerage and licensed ourselves to promote our own product.”
The Delaneys are also considering adding a spiced rum to their product line. In the meantime, they’re continuing to get their name out by doing events. They’ve presented at Johnson & Wales University and participated in events in Winston-Salem for the American Culinary Federation of North Carolina and at North Carolina State University’s State Club.
They’re also preparing for the Big Sip Expo in Greensboro this month. The expo showcases the products of local, regional and national beverage makers. Last year, Muddy River Distillery beat out six other distilleries for first place in the spirits category and came in second overall.
Robbie lists the winning day as a highlight for the company but admits that the event, the first for Muddy River Distillery, was intimidating.
“I walked in, looked around and wanted to run away,” he says. “There were companies there that had brought display stills bigger than our real still. They were pulling these things in on trailers and we show up with the display my mom built for us.”
Along with building displays, the Delaneys are thinking about adding an employee. “We need more marketing people,” Robbie explains, “but I really think I can sell my product best, so we’ll probably get someone to distill and I’ll go out and sell with Caroline.”
Ideas of expansion into Virginia and venturing into online sales are discussed but Robbie is clear about what’s most important. “Our goal is to be North Carolina’s rum,” he declares. “When people in North Carolina think of rum, I want them to think of us.”
Photo by Fenix Foto