“How do you start a distillery?” Had Matthews neighbors Matt Simpkins and Thomas Bogan been asked that question five years ago, they would have had no idea how to respond. After all, they were just two dads who met at the elementary school bus stop and bonded over whiskey and fellowship.
It was their shared love for quality spirits that eventually sparked the friends — one a pastor and the other the owner of a construction company — to start making their own.
Bogan, the one who worked in construction, had some experience with home-brewing beer in the past, so he figured it couldn’t be that different.
“I said, ‘Matt, I think we can do this. It’s one step past beer.’ … And he said, ‘Well, then let’s do that,’” Bogan said.
Unlike beer, however, it’s illegal under federal law to make distilled spirits at home, so Simpkins and Bogan experimented with the process by using pre-made distillates like moonshine (unaged whiskey), which they purchased from the ABC store.
They infused the liquor with various flavor profiles and tried several aging methods, from soaking it with different staves (pieces of wood from oak barrels) in jars to placing it in barrels, in order to figure out what made one whiskey better than another.
They also met with and visited other licensed distillers to learn how their processes affect the distillate, eventually obtaining their own license and securing an official distillery space.
“Every step of the way, it became more of a reality, which was really fun,” Bogan said. “One moment would hit and it would kind of open up the real possibility of the next step and the next step and the next step.”
One of those steps came in September when Simpkins and Bogan opened Oaklore Distilling Co., a craft distillery and tasting room located at the corner of Matthews Township Parkway and Monroe Road in Matthews.
The actual distillery space is small — roughly 250 square feet — and separated from the tasting room and bottle shop by a glass wall that allows visitors to watch them work. That’s where Simpkins and Bogan make their unaged product and process the aged barrels for Oaklore’s whiskeys made with North Carolina grains, including a rye and some bourbons. They also make vodka, rum and gin.
Though already in their dream location near the Matthews/Charlotte border, and already discussing potential expansion opportunities for their production and distribution, the friends insist it wasn’t as easy as it may look from the outside — proof the answer to “How do you start a distillery?” isn’t a simple one.
When Simpkins and Bogan settled on the idea for a distillery in Matthews, they knew they wanted to open with aged product on the shelf. However, they didn’t have a commercial license yet and state and federal law prohibited them from operating their own still at home to make it.
They used “sister stills” at other distilleries as a workaround, which allowed them to have product aging while they waited on their distilling license and worked to secure a space.
“And then the pandemic hit, and then our stuff aged a little longer,” Simpkins said. “So here we are today with aged product on the shelf that is our character and our make.”
Simpkins said North Carolina is taking a little longer to loosen some of what he views as strict laws surrounding liquor and distilleries compared to other states. Only recently did the rule change to allow distilleries to sell bottles of their liquor on site — initially starting as one bottle per customer per year, then three, five and finally, unlimited bottles as of September 2021.
A law allowing NC distilleries to sell bottled spirits on Sundays went into effect on Oct. 1, 2021.
“North Carolina historically has a longer history in bourbon than Kentucky does, but not a lot of people know that and part of that is because Kentucky did a great job of marketing and had some really big money behind it, you know, 100 years ago,” Simpkins said. “As they were putting all those pieces in order post prohibition, they ramped up a whole lot faster.”
Though prohibition was repealed in 1933, North Carolina remained a dry state until 1937, when the state government established an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) system to regulate the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol. It’s been almost 90 years and Simpkins and Bogan said there are still local, county and state laws surrounding liquor that should be updated — if only to even the playing field between distilleries, wineries and breweries.
The partners experienced this firsthand when they found the perfect location for Oaklore Distilling in Matthews only to be met with outdated zoning laws that stated a distillery couldn’t open there because it was within 500 feet of a residential neighborhood.
“We were butting up against the fact that breweries were allowed all these freedoms, but distilleries weren’t and we didn’t know why. The current commissioners of Matthews weren’t sure why,” Bogan said. “The town of Matthews was really helpful and willing to work with us to get those things changed, but it was a process.”
In September 2021, Matthews commissioners approved the duo’s rezoning request to allow their distillery to operate at their chosen site, officially setting a precedent to allow distilleries less than 3,000 square feet as a permitted use in neighborhood business districts. Town commissioners also reduced the allowed distance between a distillery and a residence from 500 to 50 feet.
The ruling was not only a win for Oaklore Distilling, but also future distilleries in Matthews. And yet Simpkins and Bogan said since then the hurdles and challenges have just kept coming. Bogan said every day there is a new puzzle to solve, but that’s what makes it fun.
“Solve enough puzzles, you get to open a distillery. Solve enough puzzles, you get to stay open,” Simpkins added.
‘The tree, the story’
The distillery’s name, Oaklore, is a nod to how whiskey is made.
As Simpkins explains it, a wooden barrel of bourbon is made of vertical staves, or pieces of oak, that are different sizes, ages and made from different trees growing in various regions and climates. They’re also cured for different amounts of time and come from different cooperages who handle them differently.
“They all have their own little fingerprint that they put on that whiskey distillate, which ultimately means that every single barrel, every single stave, tells a little bit of a different story,” Simpkins said. “We’re all about the story of that stave, which is how you get oak and lore — the tree, the story.”
It’s a story Simpkins tells guests who visit the distillery to learn about Oaklore’s products, which he said have been flying off the shelves and selling out regularly ever since they opened — enough so that he and Bogan are already talking about expansion.
The partners want to beef up operations to keep up with demand and possibly get into local distribution as Oaklore spirits are currently only available for purchase and consumption at the distillery in Matthews.
Their lineup includes vodka, gin, bourbon and rye, plus ready-made cocktails and alcoholic slushies.
The standard Oaklore bourbon, a four grain straight bourbon whiskey, features a unique blend of corn, wheat, rye and malt, resulting in a deep character and sweet finish. There’s also a North Carolina straight rye, which includes grains sourced from local farms.
In addition, every small batch release, which they call their “Story Series,” has its own profile and story, each packed with rye, spice and sweetness, with different experimental cask finishes.
“We’re really proud of our spirits. It’s important that they’re all sippable and they’re tasty and they have a great nose, a great palate and a great finish,” Simpkins said.
“Some other distilleries in the U.S. push their spirits a little fast and they’re missing some things. We’re trying to put out really high-quality spirits. If our name is going to be on the bottle, we better love it.”
Simpkins and Bogan are also working on procuring more than a dozen vintage bottles of rare bourbon available for pours, with some bottles in the collection dating back to the early 1900s. They hope to begin offering those sometime this spring.
The people’s place
Though it’s not required for entry, Oaklore Distilling offers two membership levels for those who want to be a little more involved in the distillery than the average visitor.
The Oaklore Club costs $99 a year and comes with various benefits including an Oaklore glass, free monthly gift, 10% off merchandise, early notification of special release bottles and behind-the-scenes updates.
The Founders Club rings in at $999 a year and comes with all the same benefits as Oaklore Club plus a Founders Club hat; invitations to events like special release, vintage bottle and product development tastings; distillery tour trips and more.
Memberships at this level have been limited to folks who Simpkins and Bogan refer to as a small group of “nerds like us.”
“We love sitting around talking about the mash bill and the make and the yeast and how the barrel affects it and different experimental things that happen in the bourbon world,” Simpkins said. “And there are people that love sitting around talking about that stuff, too.”
Bogan added that while the memberships tap into a deeper interest, what really gives Oaklore Distilling a feeling of community is that it’s a place where anyone is welcome — whiskey connoisseur or not.
“Every time someone walks in, whether they’re a part of the club or not, and they want to try a taste, and they want to buy a bottle, every day that happens is not lost on us,” Bogan said. “To make something that someone else enjoys I think is part of the fascinating thing about this. That is what makes us feel like we’re connected.”
Simpkins likes to tell people that Oaklore is their distillery to use and enjoy, and he’s just happy they’re there. Maybe that comes from his background as a pastor, which he admitted is unusual for someone who makes liquor for a living, but it’s really not that far off.
“I mean, Jesus’ first miracle was about wine and about hospitality and taking great care of the people around you. So it’s not that foreign,” he said, adding that monks have been brewing beer for hundreds of years.
“What’s been great for me here is that I get a chance to talk to people that would never darken the door of a church ever and we could have really great conversations and be a place for people that need a place.”
Now that Oaklore Distilling has opened in Matthews, Simpkins and Bogan said they hope to see more distilleries in the area. They want North Carolina to be a distillery destination in the same way people flock to the region’s many breweries.
After all, it wasn’t until 2005 that Piedmont Distillers in Madison brewed the state’s first legal liquor since prohibition, which means this is just the beginning for North Carolina.
“I think that as we figure out what kind of fingerprint we want to lay on that, for the history going forward, we feel really honored that we get to be a part of that,” Simpkins said. “We get to be up and running in such a way that allows for us to be a part of that design.”
And now Simpkins and Bogan have an answer whenever someone asks them how to start a distillery, which just so happened to be the morning of this interview.
As for Simpkins’ response?
“I said, ‘That’s a great question. There’s a lot to tell you.’”
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