PART THREE
Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene – Part 3

By on March 21, 2024

(Photos courtesy Brian Tress)

By Brian Tress | Outer Banks Voice

This is the third of a three-part series on the craft beverage industry on the Outer Banks.

The first two parts of the series on the Outer Banks’ craft beverage industry examined craft beer brewing and local wine bars, wineries and vineyards. This story looks at the craft distilleries producing spirits on the Outer Banks.

Spirits

As a relatively young industry, craft distilleries – which produce small batches of spirits using traditional methods – have experienced an explosion of growth in the US in recent years. According to the Craft Spirits Data Project, there were 2,290 craft distilleries in the US in 2021, up from just 455 distilleries a decade prior. This 500% expansion has been due to several factors, including a growing interest in artisanal and locally-produced products, the popularity of craft cocktails, and changes in state and federal laws that have made it easier for small distilleries to operate.

Buddy Byrum, the owner of Buffalo City Distillery on Caratoke Highway in Point Harbor, spent his entire career in the packaging and 3D printing industry. He founded the distillery because he wasn’t ready to retire and saw a use for the nearby family farm. “I read an article on a flight about craft distilling,” he begins. “What was happening with distilling was what happened to craft breweries. My first idea was to start up something in Charlotte. But the laws at the time hadn’t gone very far – you couldn’t have a bar, and tours needed to be registered. Then I thought doing tours and selling bottles might work in the OBX.”

Byrum opened Buffalo City in October 2022, by which time regulations had become looser and the distillery could have a bar. “We are blessed to work in a vacation destination,” he says. “The happiest customers are the ones who stop in on the way to their house. We’re the unofficial visitors center for the OBX!”

Byrum also wanted to pay homage to local history. “Alligator River was a hub for smugglers in boats, which brought the moonshine up to NYC and Philly. We released our East Lake Rye Whiskey – a blend of North Carolina bourbon and straight rye whiskey – based on the whiskey they made in Buffalo City a century ago.”

Buffalo City Distillery, Point Harbor (buffalocitydistillery.com)
Bar/retail manager Kelly Glander and owner Buddy Byrum (l), Straight from the still (c), Glander at the bar
(Courtesy: Brian Tress)

The facility produces whiskey and vodka, with gin currently in development. The distilling section is an array of gleaming state-of-the-art copper stills and stainless steel fermentation tanks imported from Europe; the high ceilings provide plenty of capacity for multiple tanks as well as a catwalk for viewing from above.

All the spirits use local grains, including the corn from Byrum’s nearby family farm. Kelly Glander, bar and retail manager, creates the cocktail recipes. According to Glander, “Our menu items pay tribute to Buffalo City history. The Old Fashioned was so important to get right because we are whiskey-forward.” Byrum chimes in, “We take it to its premium. The syrup is homemade, the bitters are from North Carolina, the cherry is top tier. It’s the gold standard.”

Across the bridge in Kitty Hawk is the bourbon-forward beach bar known as Tap That.  Sandwiched between the iconic burger joint Art’s Place and the Saltaire Cottages motel on the Beach Road, the owner of Tap That jokes, “We’re in downtown Kitty Hawk.”

Johnny Davis, a full-time OBX resident for the past 20 years, had never owned a bar before Tap That. He was approached by the owners of Saltaire Cottages – who were dining at OBX Butcher Block in Corolla, Davis’s other business – to come look at the vacant building next door. Davis thought the place had a great vibe and didn’t need much work to be ready to open. He envisioned a gathering spot where patrons could be comfortable coming in barefoot off the beach.

“We put a blue epoxy coat on the concrete floor to make it look like the ocean, made a few minor changes, and opened in October 2022,” he says. “Just a few months earlier, if you served liquor, 30% of your sales had to be food. But then the law changed – we would have just been beer and wine otherwise. I call it the Johnny Law!”

After opening, Davis joined forces with the OBX Cigar Lounge, which has a separately-ventilated space in the back of the building where you can enjoy your drink with a cigar.

Tap That, Kitty Hawk (facebook.com/tapthatobx)
Owner Johnny Davis (l), Façade and entrance (c), Blood Oath, a small-batch bourbon served at Tap That
(Courtesy: Brian Tress)

Davis’s son-in-law has a bar in his basement with one of the largest bourbon selections he’s ever seen. He agrees with his son-in-law when he says, “Any bourbon is great when it’s shared with good company.” But he also believes good bourbon needs to be smooth and just sweet enough. “I like the small-batch bourbons, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Angel’s Envy. Blood Oath limited release is my favorite. We are about to start tastings on Tuesdays with four different bourbons each week.”

On the other side of the Baum Bridge in Manteo is a much-loved OBX mainstay for locals and tourists alike; Outer Banks Distilling, home of Kill Devil Rum. Opened in 2015 by a group of young, scrappy friends with prior experience working at local bars and breweries, the distillery recently quadrupled its production with an expansion in 2023. It is now distributing rum in five states and in discussions with several more.

In the beginning, though, it was a different story. “We got into this business due to pure passion,” says Scott Smith, co-owner. “Passion about rum and distilling, creating something. We had a learning curve – and people witnessed it and gave us some room to grow.”

Smith has lived here for the past 20 years. A graduate of Longwood University, he first fell in love with rum during a semester abroad on the Caribbean island of Tortola. “I was studying archeology there, and I like to say I unearthed the history of rum.” He explains, “Rum originated in the late 1500s in Barbados. Kill Devil was the first term for it – killing the devil inside you. It was safer than the water, which often made people sick.”

While rum is made primarily from sugarcane juice in the Caribbean, OBX Distilling uses molasses. “We don’t add any sugar and we use local products, like pecans and honey, and different spices from across the state.”

Outer Banks Distilling, Manteo (outerbanksdistilling.com)
Façade (l), Co-owners Scott Smith and Kelly Bray (c), the My Jam cocktail at the Wheel House Lounge
(Courtesy: Brian Tress)

The distillery offers award-winning silver, gold and pecan rum, as well as specialty rums released in small batches throughout the year. According to Smith, the Wheel House Lounge serves “cocktails that you won’t see anywhere else. Everything is made in-house – the juices are freshly squeezed; the crude bitters are made by a friend in Raleigh.”

Smith says the ultimate reward for him and his partners is the respect of the community. “When we were four of the brokest guys on the OBX, the community had our back,” he remembers, some emotion in his voice. “Everything we have now has come from this place. We always want to make something the community is proud of.”

Crafting a Future

Buddy Byrum, owner of Buffalo City Distillery, exclaims, “On behalf of the businesses you are including in this article, I want to say that the OBX is overlooked in terms of just how substantial the craft brewing industry is here. Ashville pops into customers’ minds, but the Outer Banks doesn’t.”

It’s only a matter of time. Six of the ten craft-beverage businesses featured in this article opened only during the past four years. The national trends favor the continuing proliferation of artisanal breweries, wineries and distilleries. The Outer Banks not only has a loyal local following for these establishments but accommodates millions of vacationers every year. As new businesses – bolstered by the continuing success of the older ones – take hold, the Outer Banks will solidify its position as a destination for high-quality artisanal beverages, produced by passionate entrepreneurs who are focused on giving back to the community as much as fulfilling their own dreams.

SEE ALSO: Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene: PART ONE Beer

Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene: PART TWO Wine


Brian Tress has been a consultant to the tourism and hospitality industry for the past 25 years, whose work and leisure time is a fusion of advising destinations on strategic issues and enjoying immersive travel experiences across the globe. In his past travel to nearly 100 countries, Brian has made it a point to sidle up to the bar for an artisanal beverage or two, where he has met locals and fellow travelers alike.

Brian is a freelance writer for the Voice covering multi-faceted issues related to tourism and hospitality that intersect with the major themes of local life.  He is a resident of Kill Devil Hills. 



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