By Susan Swagler
It took a hundred years for Alabama to see a revival in quality, homegrown whiskey. In 2015, John Emerald Distilling Company of Opelika released the first legally distilled whiskey in the state since Prohibition (which came to Alabama five years ahead of most everywhere else).
John Sharp and his son, Jimmy, pictured above, own and operate the small-batch distillery in a former cotton warehouse in downtown Opelika. They make and distribute single malt whiskey, gin, vodka and two kinds of rum, and they rely on many Alabama-grown ingredients to make these spirits unique to our state.
John and Jimmy left a lucrative specialty plaster business (creating interior decorative plaster for Louis Vuitton stores all over the world) to open the 8,000-square-foot distillery. They wanted an occupation that kept them closer to home after the birth of Jimmy’s daughter, Lily, now four. Neither father nor grandfather wanted to miss a moment of her growing up.
The Sharps were homebrewers who briefly considered opening a brewery before turning their attention to spirits. John said they learned the art of distilling by going to school: whiskey school in Breckinridge, Co., rum school in Loveland, Co., a technical distilling course at the Seibel Institute in Chicago, and Jimmy had an internship at Springbank Distillers in Campbeltown, Scotland.
Muscadine brandy was the first thing they made, and it’s available only in the facility’s tasting room (recently named one of the top 60 bars in the South). Spirits here are served in craft cocktails or neat in a $10 tasting flight.
The company is named after John Emerald Sharp (John’s father and Jimmy’s grandfather). The products are named after other Sharp relatives, each spirit honoring people, places and traditions.
The most recent offering, the award-winning John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey, is made with malted Irish barley smoked with peach and pecan wood. This new-style whiskey is made like a Scotch and aged like a bourbon in barrels fashioned from charred American white oak from the Ozarks so it reflects the Sharp family’s Scottish and American roots.
The Sharps are working with Auburn University and growers around the state to produce barley. “We want to bring more local base products into the production,” John said. Jimmy added: “We’re either currently or evolving towards having it be ground-to-glass from Alabama.”
The Sharps were the first to make rum in Alabama in modern years, and they use sugarcane syrup from Joe Todd in Headland to do so. Gene’s Spiced Rum is flavored with local pecans. Spurgeon’s Barrel Aged Rum spends time in used single malt whiskey barrels.
Hugh Wesley’s Gin features juniper berries from the Eastern red cedar trees that grow locally along pasture fences. (Jimmy said they checked with Auburn’s agriculture department to make sure these berries were viable.) There are picking parties in the late fall; the Sharps make a bunch of gin and tonics and invite family and friends to the harvest.
The triple-filtered, corn-based Elizabeth Vodka is named after Clara Elizabeth, who happened to be a teetotaler.
The Sharps are looking to expand the Elizabeth line with liqueurs made from local fruits, and they feel confident about the future.
“Craft distilling is growing,” Jimmy said. “It’s similar to craft beer but about 10 years behind as an industry. We’re in a great position for that. There’s plenty of room to grow.”
The distillery’s current products are John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey, Hugh Wesley’s Gin, Elizabeth Vodka, Spurgeon’s Barrel Aged Rum and Gene’s Spiced Rum. These products are available at ABC stores throughout Alabama and at the distillery. Prices (750 ml bottles) range from $19.99 for the Elizabeth Vodka to $42.99 for John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey.
John Emerald’s tasting room is open Wednesday -Friday, 4 p.m. until midnight and Saturday 2 p.m. to midnight. Free tours are available Thursdays and Fridays 5-9 p.m. and Saturdays 3-9 p.m. There are occasional bottling parties, too.