Distillery returns to serving moonshine after COVID-19 mission

Meredith Amick serves a sample cocktail during a recent Saturday afternoon tasting at Hollow Creek Distillery. Staff photos by Tony Baughman

After taking on an emergency mission earlier this spring in the fight against COVID-19, Hollow Creek Distillery is back to doing what it does best. This little family-run distillery in the Lake Murray area of Leesville is once again serving its selection of boutique moonshines and bourbon to an eager and thirsty public.

Craig Amick and his wife Meredith feel they are doing their part to lift the spirits – literally and metaphorically – of folks troubled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We are certainly trying to provide some sense of normalcy,” Mr. Amick said, wearing a cloth mask as he served visitors to Hollow Creek during a Saturday afternoon tasting. “I do get the feeling that in a lot of cases, it makes people feel better just to be able to do a little something that they used to be able to do five months ago.”

Mrs. Amick, also shielding her face with a mask, chatted and poured shots of the distillery’s flavored moonshines for a dozen or so people gathered around the bar inside Hollow Creek. Only a handful of the patrons wore face coverings; those that did eagerly pulled back their masks to sample Hell Fire (a moonshine infused with Carolina Reaper pepper), Sea Salt & Caramel (a sweet, buttery-flavored shine) and White Hot (a smooth, cinnamon-spiced spirit), among other flavors.

“It’s been fantastic to see folks come back out and taste our products,” she said.

Hollow Creek now offers its hand sanitizer to the public in 750ml liquor bottles.

The centerpiece of a recent Saturday tasting event was a peach-flavored iced tea made with Hollow Creek’s peach moonshine and High Cotton Bourbon. Among those venturing out to enjoy the free samples was Meredith Ashley, who lives just up the road from the distillery.

“This is my first time out here; however, I have heard of the High Cotton before,” said Ms. Ashley as she sipped on the tasty and potent Bourbon Peach Tea. “Everything has been shut down, and honestly, I understand it in the bigger high-traffic areas like New York, Las Vegas, London – big cities where there’s high volume of people. This is a smaller part of the United States. This is a homegrown company, and it is very important to support your small businesses during this particular time.”

Mrs. Ashley and others cited “freedom-to-choose” as one reason for coming out and socializing in the age of face masks and social distancing.

“For them to be able to have not only the necessary freedoms, the civil freedoms to open up and let people make their own choices and decide for themselves what is best for them, it means a lot, not having to hide,” she said. “It’s not only supporting local businesses; it’s supporting the idea that people shouldn’t live under a shroud of fear.”

Even as they serve fans of flavored liquors, Hollow Creek continues to serve those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight as they still produce hand sanitizer used by first responders and healthcare workers around South Carolina. It’s a mission begun in late March when they were asked by the state government to produce sanitizer during the nationwide shortage.

“It actually meant a lot to us, just to be able to step up and help when people were in need,” Mr. Amick said. “Certainly, we supplied a ton of hand sanitizer to the state, but we also were able to provide it to doctor’s offices and hospitals, and ultimately to the general public.”

Initially, producing hand sanitizer to meet the pressing need meant careful planning and adapting the distillery’s moonshine stills quickly to produce a non-potable product. For the first batch, Hollow Creek Distillery took all the drinkable ethanol remaining in its production drums and returned it to the still. They cooked the moonshine a second time, which increased the alcohol percentage enough to make the final product capable of killing germs.

“The highest alcohol content that we have here that we sell as drinkable alcohol is 45 percent alcohol. Your hand sanitizer that we’re making to meet FDA regulations right now is 80 percent alcohol,” Mrs. Amick said in early April as they began production on the sanitizer.

Once the alcohol content is at the right level, the Amicks add glycerol to help alleviate dry hands and a denaturing agent that makes the concoction unfit for consumption. “And actually, the FDA has asked us to add a little hydrogen peroxide to it as well,” she said.

Making either moonshine or anti-microbial hand sanitizer is certainly not for the impatient.

“When we make our moonshine to drink, we make it at 45 percent alcohol, so it takes a week to ferment in a 200-gallon batch,” Mrs. Amick said. “When we cook that off, that 200-gallon batch is going to turn into 30 gallons of 45-percent alcohol. We have to cook that once again, so it takes quite a bit of fermentation to make a little bit of alcohol for hand sanitizer because the alcohol percentage is so high.”

Initially, Hollow Creek used ethanol produced in-house to make sanitizer but has since secured the permits and identified suppliers to provide outside alcohol that can be incorporated into the large batches now produced. The Amicks also have since dedicated an entire segment of their equipment exclusively to making sanitizer while they have returned to crafting drinkable moonshine.

“If we want to come in and make hand sanitizer, we come in and crank that up. If we want to make drinking spirits, we come in and crank that up,” Mr. Amick said.

The hand sanitizer provided to the state was shipped in gallon jugs. The sanitizer now sold to individuals comes in 750-milliliter glass whiskey bottles. Even some local churches are quietly coming into the distillery and going back to their congregations armed with liquor bottles full of sanitizer.

“Right now, we’re operating under temporary guidelines from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). As long as those guidelines are in effect, we’ll keep manufacturing hand sanitizer,” Mr. Amick said.

The goodwill earned by stepping up to help in a time of crisis certainly hasn’t hurt the demand for Hollow Creek Distillery’s signature liquors.

“We got a lot of exposure to folks and got out in the community when we did our hand sanitizer,” Mrs. Amick said “We’re introducing a lot of new folks to our spirits now, and that feels good.”

So, the Amicks and their stills at Hollow Creek Distillery continue to fill needs wherever might be – the need for personal anti-microbial protection in the midst of a deadly virus outbreak and the need to take the edge off with a good, stiff drink when all the social isolation and worry that comes with this pandemic becomes a bit too much to bear.

Up on Hollow Creek, whether you’re inclined to “Wash up!” or “Drink up!” they’re got you covered.