The Dark Corner Distillery arrives this summer on North Main Street, only the third distillery in the state, with plans to brew legal moonshine.
The history of the Dark Corner area of Greenville County is a combination of fact and fable, of tall tales and truth that are mixed and mashed, percolated and filtered through time. In a way, it’s a lot like moonshine. Both the drink and the area have a lot of bite. The Dark Corner’s history is steeped in moonshine, according to historical accounts. It thrived in the northern mountains of Greenville County for more than 200 years.
Now that tradition is on its way to downtown Greenville as the Dark Corner Distillery arrives this summer on North Main Street. A son of the Dark Corner, Joe Fenten, is one of the owners of the distillery, which, when it gets going, will be only the third distillery in South Carolina.
“I grew up next to Hyder’s peach orchard at the base of Hogback Mountain,” Fenten said. “I didn’t know what I had. But I’ve become obsessed with it for the last year.” So has his partner Richard Wenger, a home brewer who wanted to try his hand at something else. The two are electrical engineers. So to say they attacked the idea of creating legal moonshine systematically and in an organized fashion doesn’t come close to describing their meticulous approach. “We’ve spent every day and night since January satisfying local, state and federal permits,” Fenten said. In fact, the duo became so well-versed in the laws and legalities of making moonshine that often they had to instruct officials on how to proceed with their licensing. After all, there are only two other distilleries in the state. One is located on Wadamalaw Island near Charleston and makes the Firefly brand of vodkas, most notably, sweet tea vodka. The other is North Charleston-based Terressentia, a distillery that makes private-label liquors for restaurants, bars and stores, but has no offerings of its own.
That Fenten and Wenger chose to locate in downtown Greenville – and not hidden in the Dark Corner – makes their business even more unusual. It’s so unusual, in fact, that Fenten and Wenger can’t find another distillery so centrally located in an urban area. And their location is by design. Part of it is to honor a facet of Greenville County’s history that, until recently, was largely hidden.
The Dark Corner comes by its name honestly. One historical description, so oft-quoted as to be impossible to verify via the original source, says it was home to “murder, mayhem and moonshine.” Others add a fourth “m” for mystery. It’s easier to like this description of the Dark Corner taken from www.GlassyMountain.org: “The mountainous region, originally populated by Cherokee Indians, was and is home to an independent and hardy collection of people.” By bringing the Dark Corner and its colorful history downtown, Fenten and Wenger hope to bring the heritage they know into the light.
Besides selling moonshine, they will sell foods, crafts and goods from northern Greenville County. Because they still don’t have all of their permits, the two can’t even give their product away right now. But they will soon. “Over here,” Fenten said, giving a visitor a tour of the circa 1925 building that once housed O’Neal Sporting Goods and a radio station, “will be the tasting bar. We can allow people to have three, half-ounce samples a day. “And we can sell three, 750 ml. bottles, per person, per day,” Wenger said. They expect their still to produce a capacity of 15 gallons per run, and they can handle two runs a day – if they don’t sleep much. While they expect to bottle the moonshine – aka, unaged corn whiskey – immediately, if production can keep up with demand, they may one day try to age some of it for two years and produce a bourbon. “In the future, we’d like to try to make special batches,” Wenger said. “But everything is going to be made with real corn, real barley.”
They know there are other moonshines on the market, mainly made in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. But those are all mass-produced, and Fenten said most are mixed with grain alcohol. “We’re not going to mass-market,” Fenten said. “We’re trying to make this authentic. Everything we get is local, everything we could we got within 20 miles of here.”
Being engineers, they didn’t even want to task someone else with designing their still, so they sketched it out, put it into CAD, and then found a local fabricator to create it in copper. “It’s been fun,” Fenten said. “We don’t sleep, but it’s a lot of fun.”
By Mike Foley for The Greenville News • Published: May 09, 2011