Distillery, winery talk brews in Unicoi

Brad Hicks • Jan 14, 2014 at 9:19 PM

UNICOI — The town of Unicoi saw two retail liquor stores open their doors last year, and town officials are now researching the processes and laws associated with bringing a distillery or winery, or both, to Unicoi.

Town Recorder Larry Rea said two men from North Carolina approached town officials around two weeks ago to ask about opening a distillery within the town and gauge the feelings of town officials.

“They said they wanted to have a moonshine distillery,” Rea said.

Rea said that he understood this proposed venture would be similar to the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, as it would not only serve as a facility for the legal manufacture of moonshine, but that such a business could bolster tourism in the area.

Prior to this inquiry, at least one Unicoi resident had expressed interest in starting a winery within the town’s limits.

The distillery and winery issue was discussed at Monday’s meeting of the town of Unicoi Planning Commission, but Rea there are more questions than answers when it comes to having either type of business set up shop in Unicoi. Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said the town’s research is in the most preliminary of stages and the planning commission is now trying to gather as much information as possible, including where such establishments could be located, state Alcoholic Beverage Commission laws pertaining to distilleries and wineries, and health department regulations associated with each.

“That’s a completely new thing around here,” Lynch said. “We haven’t had to handle a distillery before.”

No action was taken at Monday’s meeting, but Rea said a small committee made up of members of the planning commission was formed. This committee, Rea said, will be tasked with gathering information on wineries and distilleries, and its work will include visiting at least one winery and distillery.

In November 2012, a referendum to allow retail liquor stores in the town of Unicoi passed by a majority vote. In January 2013, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the final reading of an ordinance to permit the establishment of package stores within the town.

In September, Unicoi Wine & Spirits, owned by Stacey Collins, who was granted the first retail liquor store certificate of compliance by the town, opened its doors. In November, Maple Grove Wine & Liquor, owned by Jerry Vance opened. Months of research was completed prior to the opening of these stores, and Rea expects the same when it comes to a possible distillery or winery.

“It’s not quite as easy as the retail liquor stores because the retail liquor stores, shall we say, more sophisticated,” he said. “There’s less to go on for wineries and distilleries, so we kind of have to figure things out.”

Rea said he expects the topic to again be discussed at February’s meeting of the Unicoi Planning Commission. He said it may be several months before the commission is ready to recommend action to the board of mayor and aldermen for its consideration.

And Rea said town officials are are interested in the possibility of having a distillery, winery, or both, look to locate with the town of Unicoi.

“We will get the sales tax from the opportunity, so we’re certainly interested,” he said.

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