When Zackary Cranford stepped onto NC State’s campus for the first time, he had no idea that he’d be starting a distillery four years later in the foothills of North Carolina. But the idea of starting a business had always been there.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs,” says Cranford, a native of Hickory, N.C., who graduated in 2013 with a double major in accounting and entrepreneurship. “I was accustomed to that style of thinking, and I knew one of these days I wanted to start my own business.”
After working for Lonerider Brewing Company in Raleigh during college, he realized there was untapped market potential for whiskey. After graduation, he turned down corporate job offers, and, instead, started his own liquor company, Rebellious Southern Spirits, in Conover, N.C.
“North Carolina has so many craft breweries, so I knew that beer-making probably wasn’t going to work,” he says. “But I knew there would be potential for a whiskey product, because there really aren’t many distilleries, at least legally, in North Carolina.”
Rebellious Southern Spirits is a two-man operation — Cranford and his distiller, Tim Weaver. They’ve mass-produced one whiskey, Gatlin’, a blend of corn, rye and malted barley. Gatlin’ became available in select liquor stores in Wake County last week.
Cranford says what makes his whiskey different is how the rye mellows out the corn liquor taste. For Cranford, high proof – which refers to the amount of alcohol in the beverage – and high flavor are not mutually exclusive.
Gatlin’ is 110 proof, considerably higher than traditional whiskey brands like Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark, which typically range from 70 to 90 proof.
But, then again, Cranford is no stranger to going against the grain. Cranford infused the idea of being ‘rebellious’ into his business, creating a whiskey brand that he says tastes and feels unlike anything else.
“You’re taxed on the amount of proof,” he says. “So the tax on a 110 proof whiskey is pretty high, but we decided just to go with the high proof and produce something that is truly unique and could truly represent western North Carolina.”
Like any entrepreneur, Cranford is already looking to the future. “We’re looking to come out with North Carolina’s first bourbon whiskey next year,” he says. “The goal is just to get our whiskey into as many stores as possible.”
Rebellious Southern Spirits is one of dozens of vendors – including restaurants, farms, breweries, wineries and bakeries – participating in the Red & White Food and Beverage Festival at the Park Alumni Center on Tuesday, Nov. 4. All of the vendors have NC State connections, with alumni as owners or managers. The festival is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at The State Club in the Park Alumni Center. Visit the festival website to register and see a full list of vendors participating.