Dave Angel has big plans.
After Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill that relaxes regulations placed on craft distilleries last month, Angel, who owns and operates Elevated Mountain Distilling Company in Maggie Valley, is free to expand his business in a number of ways. It’s led to some lofty ambitions.
The ABC Regulatory Reform Act, commonly referred to as the “distillery bill,” allows craft distilleries to have a full bar, where beer, wine and liquor can be served, while also allowing such businesses to sell an unlimited amount of their product.
While that in itself could improve profitability of any distillery, it will be especially beneficial for Elevated, which gets a ton of business from tourists passing through.
“We’re on the front end of tourism as far as distilleries,” he said. “Most other distilleries are either tucked away and hard to get to, so they just make stuff and ship it out … or they’re in the big cities. No one necessarily goes to Raleigh or Winston-Salem or Charlotte and says, ‘the first thing I want to do is find a craft distillery.’ But when they come to Haywood County, the home of Popcorn Sutton, and with all the history and heritage in this area, they come here looking for it.”
Angel’s first move will be putting in a full bar that will offer beer, wine, his own products and some liquors he doesn’t produce, such as gin or rum.
“We’ll probably do some of that during the day,” he said. “If someone does a tour and wonders what something would taste like in a cocktail, we’ll have some basic cocktails. But our main focus for that is more the evening. As we wind down production for the day, as we wind down tours for the day, we want to shift into more of a music venue where people can have fun.”
In the outdoor space on the east side of his building, he is going to put in picnic tables and a stage for performances, which he hopes will provide the perfect “hang out” vibe.
“By spring, we’ll have lights on the building, lighting up the stage,” he said. “It’s all about catching people going to Cherokee, seeing this lit up, seeing music, seeing people having fun and saying, ‘let’s hang out here a little while before we go over there.’ It’s just trying to keep them here in Maggie Valley.”
Angel said that while he’s open to a few different genres, he intends to focus on having bluegrass and Americana acts, considering the abundance of local talent within those genres.
“We recently became a Blue Ridge Bluegrass Destination,” he said. “That bluegrass Americana, that’s our sweet spot we want to get known for.”
As a sign of commitment to those ambitions, Angel has even planned a music festival called “Kickin in the Sticks,” which will be held at the distillery on Sept. 28.
The event will feature several local bands and will be headlined by Love and Theft. In addition to having the 36-by-24-foot stage and eight bands, the festival will also have a foot court, other vendors, a bouncy house, axe throwing and most of the cast of “Moonshiners.”
“We’re hoping to get a few thousand people here, and if that goes well, we’d like to have a series of music festivals,” he said, adding that they could specifically do festivals dedicated to specific genres, such as bluegrass, country and gospel every year.
Considering the nearby lodging options, Angel thinks those festivals could be immensely successful.
“There’s a couple hundred hotel rooms right across the street,” he said. “I hope they fill up with people who will come here and have a good time and then just walk back across the street.”
Angel added that he anticipates having the stage and the new bar ready by about mid-September. By spring, as the tourist season again picks up, along with the new lights outside, he’s hoping to open a restaurant space right there in the distillery.
Along with creating the opportunity for Elevated to become better known as a tourist attraction, the new law also removed the restriction on how many bottles Angel can sell at one time.
“That was a hard thing for the state of North Carolina to get their head around,” he said. “I’ve talked with several senators and house representatives about this. Their view was that surely four or five bottles is enough, and if they need more, they can just go to the liquor store. What it’s taken them time to understand is this is as much about tourism as it is manufacturing. 95 percent of people who come in here are not from North Carolina. If you’re from Louisiana, and this is your only trip to North Carolina, it’s not that crazy to leave with a case of our product, because you’re never coming back.”
While the changes in the law seriously pave the way for more distilleries to open up west of Asheville and even in Haywood, Angel encourages the competition. He specifically cites Gatlinburg as an example of how multiple distilleries can become complimentary to each other.
“In Gatlinburg is the most visited distillery in the world, and right next to them is arguably the second most visited distillery in the world,” he said. “Competition is not necessarily a bad thing. Competition in Haywood County means we’re becoming a destination.”
Shipping, new products
The next step Angel wants to see is legislation allowing him to ship his product to any place in the United States, an idea that was part of an early draft of the distillery bill that was eventually stricken. Angel said the main issue state lawmakers had was “reciprocity.”
If North Carolina allows the shipment of liquor across state lines, it has to allow for other states to ship here. This means the state can’t collect its 37 percent tax on those items.
“They don’t want to lose tax money,” Angel said.
“I’d say two years from now, you’re going to see us asking for that,” he said.
In the meantime, Angel is thinking about what new products Elevated can put on shelves nationwide. For example, he has been pondering the prospect of selling canned mixed drinks in other states with laws that allow for it.
“Things like canned vodka and lemonade or canned vodka and tonics,” he said. “Those would be almost impossible to sell in North Carolina, but I could sell them all day long in Florida for people going to the beach, so those are things we’re looking at now.”
For Angel, all of these big moves boil down to his key philosophy.
“It’s about building a relationship with a brand,” he said. “We want people who come to Maggie Valley to have a magical moment — experience some bluegrass, experience our products, go back to their hometown with a bottle, tell their friends about it. So then their friends are asking their ABC stores to carry it, and they’re saying, ‘we want our next vacation to be in Western North Carolina.’”
And he likes to use a brief anecdote to highlight what can happen as his brand is built.
“We had a couple last weekend coming from Charleston, South Carolina, back home to Pennsylvania, and they went all the way out of the way to come here,” Angel said. “They planned a side trip because their friend couldn’t stop talking about our root beer white lightning. They wanted to come see this place.”