Southern Sippin’

Crafted in the Southern Carolina region.

One of many of the Burnt Church’s crafted cocktails. Photo / Ian Santiago

A first cool sip of bourbon seems like such a simple action. As the liquid passes over your lips, the aroma teases your nose and tastebuds, allowing you to savor the truly complex flavors. In the Southern Carolina region, a partnership between two local businesses, South Carolina Oak to Barrel in Bamberg and Burnt Church Distillery in Bluffton, are working together to create a better sipping experience using almost all South Carolina products.

David Burt, chief operating officer for South Carolina Oak to Barrel said the demand for bourbon is exploding with the industry expected to multiply 10 percent annually for the next 10 years. 

Photos: Laura J. McKenzie/SCA

The white oak that make up South Carolina Oak to Barrel barrels helps impart the heavy influences to the whiskey.

A former barrel maker sold their Bamberg operation to an Alabama investment group that was brought together by attorney Dagney Johnson who opened South Carolina Oak to Barrel. This gave Johnson and Burt the opportunity to enter the market instantly while perfecting the barrel-making craft on a small scale before making plans to expand their operations.

South Carolina Oak to Barrel now employs 19 people and produces between 64 and 80 barrels a day, said David Hutto, Head of Operations. The company is projected to create a total of 122 jobs within their first five years of operation. 

Burnt Church Distillery is the brainchild of brothers Billy and Sean Watterson whose Watterson Brands is passionate about crafting authentic Lowcountry spirits that honor the history of the South Carolina and give back to its communities.

Photo: Ian Santiago. The amazing interior of the Burnt Church Distillery.

For the consumer, the experience begins as they enter the brown brick building that resembles a holy place. As you enter the “Grand Hallway,”  the “Study” is a room to the left that provides visual history and context. A few steps ahead is the “Sanctuary” where your eyes are lifted to a stained glass window, cathedral ceilings, sunlight pouring in from side windows, and comfortable dark wood tables and chairs surrounding the bartender’s crafting area.

Look to the left and you can see through a plate glass window into the actual distillery where water and grains are combined, cooked and the alcohol distilled. It is the baptism for bourbons Anita’s Choice and Johnny Fever, Bluffton Whiskey (American), Palmer’s Stretch (Rye Whiskey), Sin Eater (Cinnamon Whiskey), Devil’s Elbow Gin, and Burnt Church Vodka. The distillery also offers Sippin’ Saint moonshine and Amethyst, a non-alcoholic spirit.

“It begins with six different locally-sourced grains,” explained General Manager Chris Crowe. “We work with farmers for specific varieties. Most are from farms in South Carolina who can deliver to us in small batches. It is our hope that in two to three years we will be able to dump batches that are all South Carolina-sourced.”

The tall double-columned copper still is designed to run the mash through twice, bringing the whiskey liquid to 130 proof. A round copper “kettle” is used to produce the clear liquors of vodka and gin.

It is when the alcohol has been separated from the mash and water that it is poured into the barrels produced by South Carolina Oak to Barrel. The barrels are moved behind the main building to the Rickhouse, a dark warehouse where air and natural temperatures swirl around the barrels. They will remain there for years, allowing the toast and char inside the oak structure to meld with the alcohol blend, waiting for eventual bottling, pouring and sipping.

That is not the end for the barrels. “We sell the used barrels to other entrepreneurs,” said Crowe. Some of those include a honey producer, a mead producer and woodworking crafters. “They create products which we then sell in our gift shop.”

“This story is one that can be told time and again throughout the Southern Carolina region of South Carolina. In a small state comprising small communities steeped in natural beauty and a rich history, you have an outstanding environment to foster entrepreneurship, creativity and collaboration,” said Kay Maxwell, Vice President of Southern Carolina Alliance (SCA) “What makes the Burnt Church Distillery and SC Oak to Barrel story so sweet is that you have such visionary investors incorporating the history, assets and beauty of the local communities into their products. We are grateful for their commitment to sourcing locally and to improving the quality of life for our local residents.”   

“We are a company that treats our employees as well or better than any company out there,” said David Burt of the Bamberg operation. “We are helping distressed communities while building a world-class product that we and the State of South Carolina can be proud of.”

The Wattersons created a Lowcountry Legacy Fund whereby a portion of every Distillery retail transaction is used to support programs that build infrastructure, expand educational opportunities and achieve economic equity in the local Lowcountry community. The fund is currently focused on programs and opportunities that support the local Black community in Bluffton and southern Beaufort County.

For both companies it is a celebration of entrepreneurship, finding ways to connect to create great products and giving back to their communities in the Southern Carolina region and that’s a good pour.

Get yours!

South Carolina Oak to Barrel Bamberg, SC

Burnt Church Distillery Bluffton, SC

To read this story in its entirety, subscribe now to the print edition for the full article or get instant access to our interactive digital edition.