Just off Interstate 85, just a few turns past the BMW manufacturing facility in Greer, sits home base for VICARIO Liqueurs and Spirits. The artisan spirits producer has been six years in the making and is one of the few in the country making traditional Italian liqueurs in the traditional way, with traditional ingredients.
The VICARIO “garden-to-glass” approach also is unique. The spirits begin on the VICARIO farm in Italy and are completed on the 7-acre property in Greer — finished with ingredients from the sustainable farm and bottled in the 8,000-square-foot warehouse also housed there.
Since starting Vicario’s spirits business in 2014, owners Janette Wesley and Renato Vicario have grown their small company to one that is well-respected for its attention to history, culture and flavor — all the 15 liqueurs are handmade almost entirely by Vicario himself. He brings a scholar’s approach to the process, having spent four years researching traditional liqueurs for the book he wrote, “Italian Liqueurs, the Art and and History of a Creation.”
“We want to give a little bit of everything, but most important is the sensory,” Vicario explained his approach to the liqueurs. “Because when you take the time to prepare the liqueur like we do, it tastes so different than what you expect. It leaves you in peaceful harmony with your mouth, with your stomach, with your nose.”
Vicario products are now carried in eight states.
Yet, getting Vicario spirits into the hands of people in South Carolina is a challenge. Thanks to a tangled web of state liquor laws, and a system that is better suited for larger producers, Wesley and Vicario said it’s easier in some ways to get Vicario liqueurs elsewhere.
Interest in craft cocktails and in food has fueled a craft spirits industry that is producing often one-of-a-kind products that in many cases honor longstanding traditions and ingredients.
South Carolina has 35 registered micro-distilleries producing a maximum of 125,000 cases a year of everything from rum to moonshine to whiskey and gin.
The owners of a number of the state’s distilleries formed the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild in 2017 to not only educate people about distilling, but also to change some of the state’s laws.
On Nov. 2, VICARIO will launch its next phase, one that Wesley and Vicario hope will help them introduce Vicario to more people when they open their tasting room in a converted ranch-style house on their property.
The tasting experience will serve two main purposes — education and direct to consumer sales. Visitors will get a tour, along with tastes of Vicario spirits and a chance to learn more about the story behind not just Vicario but behind Italian liqueurs as a whole — Vicario actually wrote the book on the subject. That book also will be available for purchase, but in a mandated separate room.
“We want to let Greenville know that they have something good in their backyard,” Wesley said. “People in New York and other places are really enjoying it and I think sometimes your next-door neighbor is the last to know.”
A tangled web of laws
The French tarragon crop at the VICARIO farm is nearing its end. On an Unseasonably hot early October day, Wesley and Vicario are touring their herbs, surveying what is and what was, and planning for what is to come. VICARIO is pretty much a two-person operation, save for their kids who help tend to the farm, and people who help harvest products in Italy and pack them in spirits to be shipped to the U.S.
Everything is done by hand.
The products that go into the liqueurs are well-researched, as are the methods of production. That means with the end of the French tarragon crop (at the end of summer), there will be no more Dragoncello, one of VICARIO’S liqueurs that is made with the herb, and that, the savage cherry liqueur, which uses a variety of wild cherry that must be handpicked has a limited production.
Regan Cannon, former bar manager at Husk Greenville loved VICARIO’S liqueurs at first taste, calling them “incredibly high quality and world class.”
Cannon, who is now sommelier at Husk Savannah, added VICARIO products to his bar menu and created a cocktail based around the brand’s Monk’s Secret liqueur.
But even though the spirits have earned acclaim from mixologists and won national awards, it’s been hard to get their product to South Carolina consumers.
That’s partly because the laws governing distilleries are more like those governing liquor stores than say for other alcohol producers like breweries and wineries, said Scott Blackwell, who with his wife, Anne Marshall, owns High Wire Distilling in Charleston and is president of the South Carolina Craft Distillers Guild.
High Wire, like VICARIO uses highly specialized ingredients — the company’s Jimmy Red has helped revive a near extinct but incredibly flavorful variety of corn. Next year, the distillery plans to purchase 1.5 million pounds of grain for its whiskey, along with peaches and watermelon for its brandies, all from South Carolina farmers.
“When people come here, just like when you go to Napa or France to see these wineries,” Blackwell said. “We’re not a liquor store, we’re not a bar. People come here for an experience. They’re not coming here to get drunk.”
The state has changed some laws. In 2009, the Micro-Distillery law paved the way for a local craft spirits industry by lowering the cost of an annual license from $50,000 to $2,500,
And in 2017, led by Guild efforts, the state made changes to laws governing distillery tasting rooms, allowing them to showcase their spirits with mixers versus just plain and also allowing them to sell various sized bottles versus just 750 ml ones.
Still, more changes are needed, Blackwell said.
Three tiers for beer and wine, four for spirits
On a recent Tuesday, David Raad left his house at 7 a.m. to hit the streets of Athens, Georgia to sell his Six & Twenty distilled spirits. At about 6:30 p.m., Raad was finally on his way home, and had this assessment of the day.
“Successful? Uh, you never really have a grand slam, he said. “On a good day you get 33% hits where they’re like I’m buying this.”
But Raad said each trip is a way to learn more and improve.
Since starting Six & Twenty, six years ago, the brand has grown, and the spirits line has garnered considerable attention for quality and story. But selling remains a constant.
Every state is different, but some are more challenging than others. Where Raad sees the most challenges is with selling his product. While Six & Twenty is carried in states as far away as New York, there, the distributor does the selling, Raad said.
Even with name recognition now, and six years in, Raad said selling is the biggest piece of his business and is a task that even with homegrown appeal can be harder in South Carolina because the marketplace is so much smaller.
This year, Six & Twenty will open a second manufacturing and tasting room in Greenville at Poe West. The goal is to bring the brand closer to more restaurants and more people.
“We feel strongly about having the high touch in-person presentation of our products to consumers,” Raad said. “Like in our tasting room, that’s where we gain the highest impact with a consumer.
The tasting room allows distillers to sell directly to consumers, and also to control their own story.
One of the biggest challenges for Vicario and Wesley has been navigating the South Carolina’s class B license system, which mandates that distributors cannot sell spirits directly to a bar or restaurant but must sell to a class B retail store that then sells to bars and restaurants.
The numerous channels meant that though Cannon loved VICARIO products, he had a hard time getting the liqueurs at Husk Greenville. Often, he said he’d have to make multiple calls to the retailer, and to Wesley or Vicario.
Even though it was a great product, eventually, it just became too much.
“It can be worrisome if the first time you try to get something in, it’s a pain,” Cannon said. “That’s the kind of thing you don’t really want to work with on a regular basis because of consistency.”
This sort of scenario is the kind of thing Vicario and Wesley said is proof that South Carolina laws need to be re-examined.
“It really does hurt the little guy,” Wesley said. “Our buyer is way down the chain, past the distributor, past the retailer and then you get to bartender and if all those other things aren’t in place everything you do is in vain.”
She’d like to see South Carolina look at laws in other states like Colorado, which allow for limited self-distribution. Meaning a micro-distillery can sell directly to a restaurant or bar but only a limited amount.
“At least it gives you an opportunity” Wesley said. “Maybe they don’t like your product, maybe they don’t want to buy it. But when Husk calls me and says ‘ I want the Monk’s Secret right now,’ I can put it in the back of my car and take it over there and say here you go, write the invoice and be done with it.”
Where history and culture come together
A VICARIO liqueur starts on a farm in Italy. There, Vicario and Wesley grow a rare sour cherry, olive leaf, Mirto, artichokes (these are now grown on the farm in Greer) and green walnuts all of which are harvested at peak moments, packed in spirits, sealed and then shipped to the United States. Once they arrive in Greer, the process involves adding a simple syrup using honey or sugar and then adding various spices and herbs, filtering, and letting flavors marry. The process can take six months to a year depending on the variety and also on how the ingredients, fare.
When you taste VICARIO’S Monk’s Secret or Quintessence you can taste the effort. The flavors are complex and yet balanced. But to fully understand the product you have to know the story behind it, to know the history of herbs and liqueurs and to know why certain ingredients were used.
Renato spent five years researching the history of liqueurs, diving into the original medicinal purposes, and poring over text after text, many written in ancient languages, to find the most original recipes possible.
“There are so many different traditions tied to regions, tied to medicines and pharmaceuticals,” Wesley explained. “All of this happened over centuries of monks gathering herbs and trying to treat illnesses and now it really has disappeared.”
The tasting room will allow them a chance to share their story, and those of the liqueurs.
“I guess the reason we like doing this is it is saving a tradition,” Wesley said, considering why she and Vicario committed to micro-distilling. “Maybe we’re doing it in the wrong country…”
She sighed and paused to reflect a moment.
“But to me, it feels like continuing something that all of these generations have built up over so many years.“
The VICARIO Tasting Room and farm is located at 840 Old Jones Road, Greer. The tasting room will open to the public Saturday, Nov. 2. Hours will be 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, or by reservation, which may be made by emailing to [email protected]
Written by Lillia Callum-Penso, The Greenville News