Let's begin this story by picking up the iPad, smartphone or, dare I say, printed page and stepping outside. Scratch around a bit in the first patch of dirt you see. That sandy soil? It's the backbone of the state's sweet potato industry, one the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated to be worth $173 million to North Carolina in 2010.
And those tubers are proving to mean more than pies and the Thanksgiving spread as a pair of farmers turn to another deeply rooted tradition.While the modern moonshiner is far more lab coat and stainless steel than mason jars and big block engines, Jimmy Burch and Bobby Ham are most at ease on a tractor.
The growers, who combine to farm 15,000 acres of sweet potatoes, have partnered with business development specialist John Kimber and distillation expert Jim Eason to form Covington Spirits. The Snow Hill-based operation aims to convert those spuds to a premium grade beverage with the goal of "ending America's dependence on foreign vodka," as its slogan goes.Part of a boom in small craft distilleries, Covington is one of at least a dozen to open in North Carolina and joins a movement that the American Distilling Institute speculates will be 600-800 strong in the United States and Canada by 2015.
But for the humble band of merry men running the operation, the purpose was far more modest than joining a national wave of liquor-fueled furor.Covington – which has bested some of the top-shelf labels in tastings, including a gold medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition – was essentially born out of a need to use up leftovers."They have been, for many years, growing and selling sweet potatoes to a variety of end customers, said Kimber about his farming partners. "Despite that array and the success that they were achieving, there still were a number of sweet potatoes that were unsuitable for being sold to those markets because of size or shape issues."And the twisted, oversized or otherwise unmarketable sweet potatoes are the specialty of Yamco, another Greene County company owned by the afore mentioned entrepreneurs as well as other players.
The mash that Covington ferments into first a sweet potato beer and then distills multiple times in an otherworldly looking still begins as a sterile, aseptic sweet potato puree produced by Yamco. Covington is a completely separate business entity from Yamco, but the distillery is located in a walled-off parcel of the Yamco campus, making the supply route measurable with a yardstick instead of the odometer required when trucking in raw ingredients.
Tiny but ambitious, the fledgling company – which bottled its first batch in January – has a production goal of 5,000 cases of vodka for its first year. By comparison, Swedish titan Absolut claims to have shipped 11 million cases around the globe in 2010.But Covington's business model allows for significant growth, and Kimber said the initial run is no one-off fluke."We undertook this in a serious and paced manner, and ended up actually getting some help from the U.S. government in the form of what's called a Value Added Producer Grant from the USDA to help explore the feasibility of this," he said, noting that future expansion will be first based on in-state success. "We want to stay focused on the home front and with customers that we think will have appreciation for what we're doing."While Greene County has ABC stores, it's essentially a "dry" community, banning any liquor-by-drink sales.
But this hasn't stopped Covington from finding partners eager to embrace this curious new neighbor.Stephen Rouse owns Beaman's restaurant, which sits about two miles from the distillery. In addition to featuring Ham's sweet potatoes on the menu of classic Southern fare, he's gone into a bit of a mad scientist mode since acquiring a few bottles of the less conventional concoction. "I look at food as a chemistry project," he said about using the spirits in his recipes. "We've come up with a barbecue sauce that plays with the caramel undertones real well."
Other plans include his spin on a Low Country seafood boil to be billed as "The Drunken Bucket."For Ham, seeing this kind of creativity only reinforces his dedication to the undertaking. In their short period of operation, Covington has created several new jobs, including a trio of master distillers."We're very proud of our community, and try to support it any way we can," Ham said. "It's not got a lot of opportunities for people that want to live here, and as we create those opportunities, I'm proud to be a part of that."