Little by little, Georgia’s alcohol artisans are pulling us out from the depths of our dismal Prohibition past. Michael Anderson, co-founder of recently opened Independent Distillery, has joined the ranks of beer brewers and spirit makers who dare to navigate the maze of laws, in order to launch a distillery. Why go through such pain? Because the man is a fan of whiskey. Independent Distillery’s first product to market is a corn whiskey that goes by the name, Hellbender.
If you’re an avid corn whiskey drinker, the first thing you’ll notice about Hellbender is that it’s clear (all whiskey actually starts out that way). Not to be mistaken for moonshine, which, as your great-granddaddy may have hinted, can basically include anything with alcohol, corn whiskey requires 80 percent of its mash be from corn.
Hellbender tastes bright, similar to an unaged tequila or mezcal. The booze is kind of hot, but in an enjoyable way. Without being too harsh, Hellbender has a raw, light fruit character that I enjoyed straight, but would likely mix well, too. Anderson says a white rum will be making the rounds in the coming months.
Off of College Avenue in Decatur, the building itself is still very much a work-in-progress. There’s no tasting room or lounge décor (at least not yet)—nary a chair to sit on really. This is a place where booze gets made. A pallet of bottle packaging was stacked in the center of the room, and newly acquired barrels for soon-to-be aged corn whiskey had been lined up against a wall.
Anderson grinds the corn on-site and uses repurposed dairy equipment (sterilized, of course) to hold the distiller’s beer—fermented mash waiting to head to the copper pot still. He walked me over to the still, hot with puffs of air escaping from the top.
“If I had to write a book about it,” Anderson says, recalling months navigating various city and county laws, “it’d be a long, painful tragedy.” Then he reconsiders: “We have a happy ending—we got it done.” After six months of trying to make the distillery happen in Atlanta proper, Anderson gave up and headed east to Decatur. There, Anderson says that he and business partner Tommy Williams found interested and amicable help.
“[The City of Decatur] changed zoning and city ordinance just to give us a license,” Anderson says.
At a time when even the most iconic American liquor brands now have majority foreign ownership, Anderson sees craft distilling as an opportunity to support local. Hellbender’s ingredients are sourced mostly from the southeast, and Anderson wants to work with Georgia farmers as much as possible. Now that the legalities are resolved, Anderson says the focus is on product and promotion. He hopes to get Decatur’s standard-setting cocktail scene interested in Hellbender.
“I hope you’ll see it listed in cocktail recipes on menus all over the city,” he says, smiling. “Even though personally, I prefer mine with an ice cube.”