Dettling bourbon is the first (legal) bourbon produced in Alabama since Prohibition.
In the southwest corner of rural Alabama, down a red clay dirt road, with vines of kudzu snaking around anything that stands still, lies a distillery few people have heard of. Yet. But on September 22, that all might change.
Meet Big Escambia Spirits, a micro-distilling operation that has been quietly working behind the scenes, without any fanfare, for a few years on their prized product: bourbon. Why the wait? “Inventory management. You have to think ahead one, two, three years,” says Seth Dettling, the head distiller and CEO. “My production is based on my corn. It matters to us what we’re using and we want it to be ours: what seed, what field … it’s not just some horse feed we’re making booze out of.”
To say this bourbon is his life’s work isn’t an exaggeration. Dettling has been experimenting with all sorts of small-batch brewing since he was a kid. But he began seriously researching and experimenting in the spirits industry as an adult, traveling around to meet with other operators large and small. When it came time to build his own distillery, he didn’t have to look far.
Dettling grew up in this part of rural Alabama, where the main industry is farming and timber. Big Escambia’s distillery is just footsteps away from his family home, where he lives with his wife, two sons, and pet pig. The cornfields, crucial to any good bourbon maker, are a stone’s throw away, too, also in Escambia County.
During a recent visit on a sweltering hot August afternoon, Dettling showed off his in-progress cold storage building, made out of recycled material from the old rickhouse and oak trees on the property. It’ll soon hold about 60,000 tons of heirloom corn at a temperate 60 degrees, in order to keep bugs away without the use of harsh chemicals. “We grind the grains every single day so they’re fresh,” he says. “Everything you think about cooking holds true to distilling — you have to have really great ingredients.”
Big Escambia River, the namesake of the distillery, runs right behind Dettling’s home.
Dettling Bourbon is truly homegrown. The corn is meticulously chosen and fully processed by Dettling and his tiny team without ever leaving the property. They even grow their own yeast. “When you have already gone the extra-hundred miles, it is difficult sometimes to go one more ‘extra-mile’ but it’s the only way we can do it,” says Dettling. “A lack of resources leads to resourcefulness.”
Scooping a hand into one of the many burlap bags neatly lined up around the still, Dettling showed Tales the craft beer grains he was experimenting with for his client’s bespoke bourbon, which included rolled oats from Chile (the kind commonly used in a Hefeweizen), flaked rye, and a malted wheat roasted like a coffee bean until it was a caramel consistency. “We’re constantly working with new grains. But the heart of bourbon is corn — and that’s what we grow,” he says.
After a quick “thieving” in the top of the rickhouse, a sample of his bourbon reveals a rich and unique flavor profile. Which is really the whole point of Big Escambia — crafting the first legal bourbon produced in Alabama since Prohibition. And when it comes to aging bourbon, geography is everything.
The climate of Atmore is considerably different from where most bourbon is made (Kentucky, Illinois, or Indiana), and this shines through with each sip. “[Our location] creates a very specific experience … this stupid hot climate of ours really makes a difference.” he says. Dettling’s rickhouse sits near the bank of Big Escambia River, full of bourbon barrels maturing in the humid Alabama heat during the day and cooling off with the creek bottom air at night.
The rickhouse is also steps away from the Dettling’s home, making his work commute pretty darn convenient.
Of course, every successful company needs a brand evangelist, and that title happens to belong to Robert “Bubba” Hall, another native Alabaman who’s been stealthily spreading the world of Big Escambia for a few years now. “In Alabama, you cannot build rockets, record music, write books, or distill authentic ‘field to glass’ bourbon,” notes Hall. “Huntsville, Muscle Shoals, Harper Lee, and Seth Dettling of Big Escambia Spirits … did not get the memo.”
The first bottle of Dettling Bourbon will be auctioned off on September 21 at the Pro Hops Vino event in Birmingham, Alabama, raising funds to help low-income families overcome life-altering legal issues. The bourbon is officially debuting on Friday night, September 22, at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. With the demand already so high, Dettling bourbon will be available initially only in Alabama by special ABC product code A9288. Bourbon enthusiasts, take note.