The Dread River - Where Spirits, Beer and Wine Flow
By Ann B. DeBellis
A new business venture has joined Birmingham's successful craft brewing industry on the southside of the city. The Dread River Distillery Company opened its doors in July as the largest distillery in Alabama. The 24,000-square-foot manufacturing facility includes a tasting room, event space that currently can hold 250 to 400 people, and a 5,000-square-foot bar where patrons can taste the full line of products that will be made and distilled in the Magic City.
Founding partners Jeffery Dugas, MD, a surgeon and partner with Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center, and John Cubelic, former Auburn University wide receiver and film producer, wanted to create a new experience for the people of Birmingham. Cyd Quick is the third partner and serves as Director of Events.
"A friend of mine opened a distillery and rum company about five years ago on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina. After spending time there, John and I decided to become his brokers in Alabama," Dugas says. "Subsequently, after finding out that Birmingham was one of the largest cities in the United States that didn't have a commercial-grade distillery with tours and tastings, we hatched the idea to open one here."
Dugas and Cubelic visited 50 distilleries throughout the United States in 2016 and 2017 to get ideas and information before they decided to go forward with the project. With the help of city leaders, including former Mayor William Bell, many businesses and government entities, they got the information they needed. They also received advice from Michael Sellers of Good People Brewing Company, Andy Gwaltney of Cahaba Brewing Company and Laura and Mudd Newman at Queen's Park.
"The whole industry has been very gracious and collegial," Dugas says. "The farther we got down the path, the more exciting it became. I said at the beginning that if I was going to do this, I wanted to create something that was going to compete with the best there is. I wanted to compete with the best Kentucky has to offer, and I wanted to compete with the best vodkas and the best gins. I didn't want anybody to say it was second rate. I wanted our products to be considered at least on par with the best that I enjoy drinking."
Work on the project began in earnest in 2017, and the partners leased the former Peck and Hills building for the distillery warehouse and event spaces. Through a chance meeting with Troy Ball of Troy and Sons Distillery of Asheville, NC, Dugas and his partners were able to purchase barreled whiskeys, top-of-the-line tanks and distilling equipment. The Balls are now partners in the Dread River Distillery.
"The Balls led us to the hiring of their former distiller, Carl White, and beer brewer Michelle Piechowicz from Doc Porter's distillery in Charlotte, NC. At that point, I felt that God was smiling on our project," Dugas says. "We also hired a CEO, Brian Rodgers, a former member of the Alabama Beverage Control (ABC) board in Montgomery. Prior to working at ABC, Brian was head chef and director of the beverage program for Five Star Plantation near Montgomery. We are fortunate to have all of these talented people and excellent equipment."
The whiskey that Dread River purchased from the Asheville distiller is Select Blended Whiskey and was made by Troy, Charlie and Carl made on the equipment that Dread River now owns. "It was sourced from the still we now own, made by our own people, and proofed it with Birmingham water. It is now Birmingham whiskey," Dugas says.
The Dread River distillers have manufactured gin, vodka, whiskey and bourbon in Birmingham that are in barrels to be aged, and they currently are selling vodka, gin and blended whiskey. Customers can purchase up to three bottles per person per day.
"Our vodka is made with 100 percent red winter wheat, and it is sweet and smooth. We have a west coast style gin that is floral and citrusy. People have been happy with it, because it isn't dry," Dugas says. "We are making bourbon that is in barrels, and we are making different types of whiskeys along with our base products for our blends. We are already making beer and should have six to eight varieties on tap once we get on a full schedule, and we will make wine as well."
Along with the spirits, beer and wine, the bar offers craft cocktails and a full kitchen menu designed by former Hot & Hot Fish Club chef Sadesh Wilkerson. "We will continue to grow over the next few months as we roll out new products and merchandise," Dugas says. "I really love seeing the look on people's faces when they taste our products for the first time. They realize that not only did we make it, we made something good."
Named for the legend of a subterranean water source flowing under the streets of Birmingham, "Dread River" has become much more. "I see it as a metaphor for life," Dugas says. "We're all tubing down the same river in life toward the same end, and we want to make that trip a little better for everyone. We want to 'let our spirits lift yours.'"