Farming and Foraging to Fashion a Fernet: Eda Rhyne Distillery's Chris Bower and Rett Murphy

written by Bill Kopp

If you want to launch a distillery, it's helpful to have amassed a small fortune before you start. It also helps to be a little crazy. Chris Bower and Rett Murphy got into the business without the benefit of the former. But there's a strong case to be made that the latter applies to this pair of Western North Carolina entrepreneurs.

You'd have to be crazy to work in an industry that's heavily regulated at every level -- federal state and local -- and that presents a nearly endless series of barriers to success. But Bower and Murphy seem to take it all in with good-natured (yet clear-eyed) optimism.

Case in point: in July, their company, Asheville-based Eda Rhyne Distillery, was about to debut a new spirit, the fourth in its growing line. The morass of regulatory hurdles had been deftly navigated, and all that remained prior to bringing its spicebush vodka to market was state approval of the labels that would adorn the distinctive Eda Rhyne bottles.

And then they hit a snag.

The product -- which is eagerly anticipated among craft bartenders and liquor nerds -- is a distinctively American spin on a spirit not easily found in the U.S.: bison grass vodka. The "real" stuff is made from a flavorful aromatic herb that unfortunately contains trace amounts of coumarin, recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as a blood thinner. Eda Rhyne's new spirit, of course, has none of the banned grain; instead it gets its flavor from spicebush, a wild shrub native to Eastern North America.

But the snag came when someone in an office somewhere at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, didn't like what he or she saw on the proposed label. "There was a space between 'spice' and 'bush' one place on the label," Murphy explains with a mixture of frustration and bemusement, "and no space on another."

By the time you read this story, the offending space will have been eliminated ... or duplicated. Either way, Eda Rhyne's newest concoction should soon be on the shelves of local ABC stores and discerning regional bars. But not for long. Murphy and Bower have been tinkering with the recipe for some time now, and this initial small batch is the first that meets their exacting standards.

"We've learned a whole lot in the past two years of harvesting," Murphy admits. "Like not letting sun touch anything, getting everything out of the forest before a certain time of the day, and using it all that day or else we start to get some off flavors." The result of their efforts is coming to market in a very limited run of 1500 bottles. "Next year we'll have a ton," he promises, "but if you like it now, buy a few bottles. Because it's not going to be around long."

Harvesting isn't a word that most distillers use, at least not when they're talking about their own activities. But that's part of what makes Eda Rhyne special: many of the ingredients come to the distillery by way of foraging. Rather than buy spices, herbs and barks in bulk, these distillers responsibly source the ingredients directly whenever possible. And when an ingredient is called for in greater quantities, they farm it themselves of buy it from farmers committed to sustainable practices.

The artisanal approach that these distilling entrepreneurs bring to their craft dovetails nicely with the resurgent interest in cocktails, and -- despite their lack of formal business training -- both Murphy and Bower run the operation and navigate the regulatory waters like old pros.

Elixir heritage
Chris Bower cuts an imposing figure. Standing well above six feet, a cocktail glass in his hand looks more like a shot glass. At first glance, a stranger might take him for a hippie; this is Asheville, after all. A moment later, if they're still sizing him up, they might reconsider and suspect he's a classic mountain man, with deep familial roots in Western North Carolina. To some extent, both presumptions have some basis in fact -- Bower's long hair and beard fit right in with the Asheville vibe, and he did in fact grow up in Fairview, just outside of town.

But Bower is a far more complex and nuanced character than those reductive stereotypes suggest. When the subject of leisure time comes up in our conversation, Bower offhandedly says, "If I'm looking at books, I want to look at a French manuscript from the mid-1800s or something like that." That unassuming sophistication is matched by a quiet savvy: he was already a successful entrepreneur when he started Eda Rhyne, as evidenced by his pair of bars -- downtown Asheville's Lazy Diamond and the Double Crown in West Asheville -- both popular with locals.

Bower's interest in alcoholic beverages is a continuation of a family culture, but not in the way that one might guess. He readily admits that the bootlegging tradition is part of his family's heritage. "Though I didn't know it for most of my life, members of my family were engaged in illicit liquor," he says. But they didn't drink.

As has been the case with many cultures, people in rural Appalachia viewed alcohol as a medium used to deliver curative benefits. "It wasn't too long ago that people healed themselves with plants," Bower emphasizes. And those making their own liquor were connected to that practice. "There was always a portion of the run that would go to the healers, because [alcohol] is a perfect way to extract and preserve the healing compounds of the plants."

And that's where Bower's grandparents come into the story. "It wasn't until they had passed away and my family was like, 'Oh, here's this cabinet, and there's corn liquor.'" he says. "'And plants.' They were making medicine."

He quickly makes a point of emphasizing that Eda Rhyne makes no claims with regard to curative properties in its Appalachian Fernet. Doing so would land the distiller in all manner of trouble with the Feds. And nobody wants that.

In fact there is a more conventional side to Bower's deep interest in (and knowledge of) adult beverages. "My papaw on my dad's side had a liquor store when I was growing up," he says. And -- again without realizing it at the time -- young Bower absorbed a lot of creative ideas about the visual side of the world of liquor by spending time in that shop. Though he has no background in graphic design, Bower came up with Eda Rhyne's unique bottle shape and its oval labels that subtly suggest an apothecary from yesteryear.

Bower shrugs, brushing away my effusive praise for those design elements. "Like most mountain people, I'm just naturally creative," he counters, speaking of a "sense of a practical creativity that's born out of necessity. And that's what I have; that's what I do."

Beyond admiring the attractive bottles in his grandfather's shop, Bower's introduction to spirits came when he and a buddy stole a bottle from a friend's house. He recalls that youthful memory: "Yes, this whiskey stuff that they talk about is amazing!" But that introduction was followed by years of disappointment. Insisting with a mock-straight face that he was of legal age when all of this took place, he says, "Later, I'd try whiskey at parties, and I'd think, 'None of this stuff is like what we were drinking.'" Through his own informal field research, Bower eventually learned the difference between varieties of whiskey, and the difference between good and not-so-good.

Meanwhile, Bower says that when he was a highschooler in Fairview, "You could go down to the Rocky Broad River, and there would always be old timers down there with 'shine. They would trade you for cigarettes or weed. If you needed it, it would be there."

"I've been a farmer all my life," says Rett Murphy. "That's basically all I've ever done." That background -- with its understanding of the land and its yields -- plays into his current-day status as co-owner of Eda Rhyne Distillery. But he got into the whole thing mainly because he likes interesting drinks.

"I had never been in the [liquor] industry," Murphy freely admits. "I've always been someone sitting on the other side of the bar; that's my experience. I came at this as someone who's really into botanicals, plants, foods, flavors." He met Bower years ago through mutual friends, and got to know his future business partner even better when he started hanging out at Bower's bars.

Murphy readily credits Bower as the team member with the deepest experience regarding the herbs, spices and other flora that give Eda Rhyne spirits their unique character. "I didn't grow up in some sort of family where we were going out in the woods and eating fiddleheads and stuff like that," he says with a chuckle. "I grew up in Greensboro. My parents and grandparents were big vegetable gardeners, but that's a little bit different than wandering out in the woods to find food."

But Murphy brings a deep interest in the more flavorful end of the spirits world. "A number of years ago, I started pretty heavily exploring botanical-based spirits: amari, a lot of gins, various liqueurs from all over the place," he says. "And I got passionate about it. When we first started this business, we always planned on making a fernet, but it wasn't necessarily our plan from the beginning to be a specifically amaro-focused distillery."

Yet in large part, the distillery's eventual path was established fifteen years before, when Chris Bower discovered a drink so singularly unique, it has a color named after it.

From counterfeit to genuine
Mountain heritage notwithstanding, it wasn't until Bower moved to London that he discovered a rich and varied world of spirits beyond moonshine and store-bought whiskey. "I discovered all these strange drinks that I'd never even seen before," he says. And when he visited other countries in Europe, his world opened up even more. "There was one product that really stood out to me," he says, still conveying his sense of wonder. "Chartreuse."

The potent liqueur distilled by Carthusian monks in an Alpine monastery -- using a recipe passed down by monks sworn to a vow of silence -- captured Bower's taste and imagination. Once back in the States, he discovered that there exists a long tradition of attempts to replicate Chartreuse. Countless counterfeit spirits have been made, all over the world, but none quite captured the unique, spiced and herbaceous terroir (flavor that derives from the environment in which a beverage is produced) of the original.

"I decided I was going to counterfeit Chartreuse, too," Bower says. "But it didn't work out very well." Yet his failed experiments led him down a new path, one that connected back to his mountain roots. "I grew up learning about the plants here in the mountains; my pappy would take me out in the woods and show them to me." He began to realize that those plants could be combined in original ways with a base spirit to create something akin to Chartreuse, but with a uniquely Appalachian character.

"I also realized I already had relationships with some of those plants,' Bower says. "So I started making herbal liqueurs -- just for me personally -- out of local plants." And one morning he work up to inspiration. "It was like a voice," he says with a chuckle. "'Go make a fernet!' So, I got up out of my bed and just started collecting barks and roots and flowers and leaves and fruits." He sourced everything from the rugged and mountainous 60-acre plot surrounding his cabin.

Bower brought his harvest back to the cabin. "I put it in a jar of moonshine and let it sit underneath my kitchen sink," he recalls. "And when I came back to it a couple weeks later, I discovered that indeed, I had made a fernet. And that was the rustic genesis of what Eda Rhyne's Appalachian Fernet is today."

How sweet it isn't
From a classification perspective -- something very important to federal regulators, but also of value when positioning a new product in the marketplace -- Appalachian Fernet is an amaro. Amari (that's the Italian plural form) are herbal liqueurs often served as after-dinner digestifs, but in recent years they've found increased use in creative cocktails. The American palate has long been characterized as more attuned to sweet flavors than bitter ones, making amari something of an acquired taste here. In fact, many of the most popular brands -- Ramazzotti, Cynar, Zucca and Montenegro, to name just a few available locally -- all have sweetening to soften the bitter elements.

Eda Rhyne went a different route, one that wins them accolades from intrepid bartenders. "Chris and Rett believe in keeping their liqueurs as dry as possible," says Christian Gaal, craft bartender and a consultant to the distillery. "From a legal standpoint, the amount of sugars in [their spirits] are at the legal minimum for them to participate in that category." That, he explains, make Eda Rhyne's products more versatile. "You can always add sugar into a cocktail," Gaal points out. "But you can't take it out."

Gaal believes that Bower's approach is one that "respects the tradition of the amaro, but also brings it into a realm that might be a little easier for the contemporary palate to enjoy. That's his wish upon a star, and he's in a position to make it a reality."

But it's really the Appalachian character of Eda Rhyne spirits that sets them apart, Gall says. He rhapsodizes about the region's unparalleled biodiversity, due in part to the mountain microclimates that abound in the area. "This region was a refugio for many flora during the previous ice age; there are certain plants that only exist here because of special [environmental] conditions."

Gaal says that the Westen North Carolina mountains level of diversity "is analogous, perhaps, to the various alpine herbs that are used in those high elevation regions in Italy and in France to produce their traditional liqueurs. So, in a sense, you're talking about terroir liqueurs."

The legend of Eda Rhyne
"When we needed a name for our distillery, we thought about a lot of different things," says Bower. "The first thing we wanted was a really fantastic southern name. An old-school name that just has that strange, beautiful language about it." They also wanted to stand out in a field overwhelming dominated by male names: Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Don Julio.

So inspired, Bower and Murply turned to a Haywood County ghost story about a woman named Eda Rhyne. "It's an old southern murder ballad type thing," Bower says with a chuckle. "A terrifying moral tale. And it's a really cool feminist revenge story." That air of homespun backwoods mystery suited the distillers, so Eda Rhyne Distillery it would be.

Cash flow vs. liquor flow
When Murphy and Bower decided to launch Eda Rhyne, they had to scramble to raise the start-up funds. "We all borrowed money from friends and family," Murphy says, "and we got personal loans." The distillery secured a loan through Mountain Bizworks, but that still wasn't quite enough. "I have had to extend quite a bit on various credit cards because of the way that cash flow goes in this business," Murphy says.

They also made use of the crowdfunding model. "We did an IndieGoGo campaign to get us over the finish line," Bower says. But ultimately, it came down to Bower, Murphy and two other investors. "We used our ingenuity and personal finances to make this happen," he says.

There are many ways for entrepreneurs to express their creativity in a way that yields financial rewards. But opening a distillery is among the most challenging. Bower is forthright when he says that dealing with regulators was "a nightmare. There's so much to get into; this is a highly regulated business.

"Which," he hastens to add, "is a good thing. It's regulated for a reason." But both he and Murphy are pleased to see some modernization being made to state laws that affect Eda Rhyne's business. The North Carolina legislature recently passed SB 290; its provisions will allow distilleries like Eda Rhyne to sell mixed drinks. Bower and Murphy believe that will help grow interest in their amaro products -- currently the Appalachian Fernet, an Amaro Flora, and a Rustic Nocin (made with green walnut) spirit -- because they can let guests sample them in the context of cocktails they already recognize.

Another part of SB 290 that could benefit Eda Rhyne is its allowing bars and restaurants to order individual bottles. Currently, minimum wholesale purchases are a 12-bottle case, and while some ABC boards (Asheville, for one) allow several bars to go in together and split a case, many others do not.

But even with the easing of outdated blue laws concerning alcohol, it remains an uphill battle. "ABC's payment terms are net 30," Murphy explains, "so you're putting all this money out that maybe you'll see back six, seven months later." And the distillery's longer term plans include some spirits that require aging; as a result, a lot of money is currently tied up in a rye whiskey that's still a long way from being ready for sale.

Murphy has been working in measured steps to expand the distillery's distribution. "I've agreed to send a few hundred bottles to Georgia," he says. "We're just starting to sell there." But he admits that most sales, whether retail or in bars, are local and regional. Getting product on the shelves of ABC stores across the state is difficult, because the distillery has to deal with each board individually; there's no state-wide apparatus.

Rhyne with reason
In a market that's increasingly crowded, there's great benefit to carving out a niche. And that's an area in which Eda Rhyne excels. Availing themselves of ingredients that can be harvested locally -- either by foraging or by growing them on Murphy's Aardvark Farm in Burnsville -- the distillers create spirits that have a uniquely Appalachian terroir.

Murphy and Bower draw upon local and regional wisdom, too. "In Asheville, probably more than almost any other place, there are people with that knowledge who still are trying to carry it forward," Murphy says. "Whether it be people in the Native American community, old hippies, old hillbillies or even people who have moved here from elsewhere, we seek out their knowledge.

"Also, there are historical records of people using a number of the ingredients that we use for liquor. So you find that stuff out, you try what's available and see what you like," Murphy says. "And then, you see what the government is willing to let you get away with; that's the scary part."

Eda Rhyne's business model calls for expanded offerings, but other than the spicebush (or spice bush!) vodka and a rabarbaro aperitif, details are being kept under wraps. And while a drinker with a refined palate might discern at least some of the ingredients that flavor Eda Rhyne products, the distillery's recipes remain a closely guarded secret. At a recent meeting of the Asheville chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, Bower muttered something to a fellow attendee about -- wait for it -- beetles. Later asked to clarify -- did he actually mention beetles? -- he's tight-lipped. "Yes," Bower says with a conspiratorial smile. "We'll leave it at that." Like I said: just a little crazy.

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