Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The knock at the door, early in the morning, was expected. The moonshiner had been tipped off about the routine inspection. He always was.
The revenuers searched his house and found nothing. They would have left with nothing, too. But outside, where the sun hung low over the Atlantic and waves pounded the beach, they spotted footprints in the dew. As the chill air gradually gave way to oppressive humidity, they followed the track through the forest until they found the hidden stash. The revenuers collected the moonshine, along with the moonshiner, and sailed back to the mainland.
Not long after, the moonshiner returned. "What happened?" everybody asked. "How'd you get back so quick?"
"Well, by the time we got over there," replied the moonshiner, "the evidence was gone."
Almost a century later, 46-year-old Tyler Gerow tells this story about his outlaw great-grandfather while standing in the distillery room of the Daufuskie Island Rum Company in South Carolina. The business where he works as a jack-of-all-trades is within walking distance of those long-ago moonshine stills.
Daufuskie Island--which sits off the Georgia border--is just five miles long and three miles wide, and home to around 425 full-time residents. Everyone knows everyone, which is how Gerow met Tony Chase, 56, the founder, CEO, and master distiller of the company, which opened its doors in December 2014.
No bridges or roads connect Daufuskie Island to the mainland. You go by boat or you don't go at all.
Rum has long been associated with islands. It was first produced in the Caribbean in the 1600s, and many a pirate chugged it on tropical sands. But today, just three rum distilleries operate on islands in the U.S., according to Chase. The others are on Long Island, New York, and Maui, Hawaii.
Chase's product has proven both popular and successful. His investors sunk $600,000 into getting the Daufuskie Island Rum Company off the ground, and he plans to return it all by mid-2017. In the past year and a half, the distillery has hosted over 6,500 visitors on paid tours (not counting those who come in just to buy rum or look around), a number that Chase says matches or exceeds his counterparts on South Carolina's mainland.
Visitors have come from 49 states and 39 countries. More important to Chase: His company has become a local icon on an island often wary of newcomers.
An island full of doubts
Chase is no one's idea of a moonshiner. A former pharmacist and hospice manager, he lived in Kentucky for 30 years before seeking a retirement destination for himself and his then-girlfriend, Kristi. (Now his wife, Kristi Chase is vice president of the rum company.)
In July 2012, Chase sat down at his computer and entered four parameters into a Zillow real estate search starting in Destin, Florida: beachfront property, at least an acre of land, a first-floor master bedroom, and an in-ground pool. It took scrolling down the Florida panhandle and back up the eastern seaboard to find a house that matched all four. The couple drove to South Carolina to view the property. It wasn't until the realtor called to set a time for the visit that they realized it was only accessible by water.
At that point, they weren't looking for a place to start a company, only a beach home for intermittent use. But Chase had recently started toying with the idea--suggested by a medical director at one of his hospices--of starting a distillery. Once they saw Daufuskie, they fell in love with it, along with the idea of making rum on an island. The island's residents, on the other hand, were skeptical. Daufuskie has a long history of plans that never pan out, from failed resorts to shuttered restaurants. Some collapsed because of poor business models or lack of support from local government. But the chief culprit had always been logistics: the sheer difficulty of operating on an island with no public transportation to and from the mainland.
The locals call the failed projects "Daufuskie Ideas." According to Kristi, a fellow resident later told Chase, "You know, a lot of people come here and say they're going to do something. And none of them do it."
Geoff Brunning, one of the company's investors, puts it more bluntly: "When Tony first started talking about it, I think everybody thought, 'Oh yeah, we'll see if that happens.'"
But Chase was determined; Kristi describes him as a "train engine when he gets an idea." First, he bought the land for the distillery--a 12-acre plot originally priced at $500,000, but serendipitously slashed to $150,000 right around the time Chase started looking.
By the time the couple moved to the island full time in September 2013, Chase had filed articles of organization with the state of South Carolina. His pharmaceutical background meant the rum-making itself would be easy. "The fermentation is nothing more than microbiology," he says. "The distillation is nothing more than organic chemistry."
But Chase needed a building to house the distillery, and he calculated that hiring a contractor to construct a 1,500-square-foot facility would greatly exceed his budget. So he resolved to build the plant himself. He did so, starting in July 2014, with the assistance of fellow islanders Gerow and Rod Rossman. They followed the advice of Brunning, who had retired from a career in construction.
As they sweltered under steel beams in the Lowcountry heat and humidity, curiosity on the island began to rise. Soon, islanders were bringing the men lunch every day--not just sandwiches, but pasta, meatloaf, and other homemade offerings. "They didn't want us to stop working," Gerow laughs. "Because they knew if we went down to a restaurant, we might not come back."
Rum is an island drink
Russia and Poland evoke vodka. England evokes gin. A warm, rainy island evokes rum.
The distillery's location affects more than its brand. Everything that arrives or departs travels on a barge that runs once a week. Each 5,000-pound order of demerara sugar, for example, travels two and a half hours across the water from Savannah, Georgia. Pallets of rum make the trip back, even if they will eventually be repurchased by island businesses. (South Carolina law mandates that bars and restaurants buy through distributors.) Visitors can still purchase individual bottles at the distillery.
It's a tradeoff: paying more and sacrificing ease of logistics for an authentic brand and quality of life. "There's not one person that's looking at this as a home run for retirement," Chase says. "That's not what this is about."
Daufuskie Island's remoteness also caps production, because there's only so much land on which to build. The facility expects to output almost 30,000 bottles of rum in 2016--the facility has enough capacity to eventually hit 200,000 per year--leading to a projected revenue of $600,000. Next year, Chase would like to increase his revenue to a cool $1 million. It all depends on distribution: Currently, the rum company has footholds in Georgia and South Carolina, with plans to expand into Alabama in April and Florida later this year.
By comparison, Tito's Handmade Vodka, which also started out as a micro-distillery, in comparatively accessible Austin, sells 1.3 million bottles of vodka per year in the state of Georgia alone.
Chase has no such grand aspirations. His rum company would be profitable even if it never sold a bottle off the island. He says he won't sell the business because he couldn't stand driving by the distillery every day for the rest of his life knowing somebody else was running it.
That sense was never stronger than on the 4th of July last year, when the company held a release party for its gold rum, aged for six months in bourbon barrels from Kentucky's Woodford Reserve. For Chase, a bourbon-loving army brat who had spent decades in the Bluegrass State, it was the perfect product. That the all-made-in-the-U.S.A (Denver yeast, Florida sugar) rum was ready for drinking on Independence Day was icing on the cake.
A local band played outside on a beautiful summer's day. The ducks that live in the distillery's pond wandered the grounds, along with approximately 350 tourists and islanders who'd come to tour the distillery and taste the rum. The response was overwhelmingly positive. "Nothing feels better than to have someone drink your rum and truly enjoy it," says Chase. "This is about as classic a piece of Daufuskie as you can take home."