For those of us who grew up in North Carolina, the town of Kinston was little more than a wide place in the road, a dot on the map surrounded by farmland and livestock, its city limits passed through on the way to and from the Carolina beaches. But Kinston was not always a sleepy hamlet. In its heyday, it was home to the first governor of North Carolina, Richard Caswell, when the state capital was seated in coastal New Bern. His home, Harmony Hall, still exists and is the oldest building standing in Kinston. The two main streets in Kinston were named after King George and Queen Charlotte in 1762, and remain King and Queen Streets to this day. The city prospered as a tobacco and cotton trading center after the Civil War and expanded into lumber at the turn of the century. To fuel its expansion, the city needed power and in 1906, it built a power plant and pump station along the Neuse River on Atlantic Avenue.
With power and water at its disposal, the city grew its residential and business base, but the growth placed even more demand on the power plant, and within years, the demand for power and water had outpaced the plant’s capacity, prompting the city to start outsourcing electricity rather than produce it themselves. The plant was shuddered, a relic of antiquity, and left to sit abandoned and empty for the next five decades. But where the city’s story comes to a close, the narrative for the power plant and pump station continued in the vision of a developer, traveler, renaissance man and vodka maker who is writing another chapter for the brick and mortar behemoth.
Enter Cary Joshi, real estate developer and vodka maker. In search of a location to build his new distillery, he traveled to Kinston to see for himself the power plant and pump station sitting fallow for decades and on the verge of being razed by the same city that had built it. What he found on that sleepy block of Atlantic Avenue was more than he had ever expected.
Hiding in the rust and crumbling mortar, he found a vintage, industrial design, a sound architectural structure large enough for his distillery, a tasting room, an event space and even boutique rooms for wedding parties and overnight guests. In the back of the property lay a sprawling million-gallon freshwater covered reservoir fed by two deep-water wells that pull water from the Black Creek Aquifer, an expanse of rock stretching from West Virginia to Georgia that filters water through layers of sand, rock and sediment.
The aquifer provides clear filtered water for the distillery, water that has meandered for ten thousand years through layers of fine salt and pepper sand and rock before ever reaching the distillery. Seeing the aged giant’s potential, the crops growing in the soil on the farms around them, and looking at the skyline of the plant looming overhead, the name for the nascent company was obvious. Joshi bought the plant and pump station from the city, and Three Stacks Distillery was formed.
The distillery is the home of Social House Vodka, a classically-made vodka produced in Three Stacks’ custom-made copper pot stills. The stills, fitted with towering 20-plate columns, distill the vodka more than 25 times before master distiller Lisa Lowery deems it ready to bottle. Social House Vodka sources its gluten-free, locally-grown corn from area farmers, putting money back into the local community and supporting its neighbors, making the company’s success a local group effort.
Vodka is an enigmatic spirit, and making really good vodka presents its own unique challenges. Unlike other spirits, whose flavor profiles determine how the liquor will be defined as well as how good an expression it is of the whiskey, rum, gin, or brandy it embodies, the distiller’s goal with vodka is to present an all but flavorless spirit, a blank canvas, an empty stage on which other flavors and aromas may dance. Achieving such an ephemeral neutrality is done by multiple distillations and by pulling the spirit from the still at a precise temperature to prevent any low or high wines, alcohols that become esters at temperatures below or above 173 degrees Fahrenheit, from ending up in the bottle and impacting the flavor and aroma of the vodka. When the spirit is clean, uncompromised, and pristine, it is blended with water purified through the ages, and the result is Social House Vodka, the flagship spirit of Three Stacks Distillery and a harbinger of things to come.