Charlie Cowart, Master Distiller at Still Pond Winery and Distillery, checks the alcohol content of the vodka being distilled in the company’s copper column still. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
Still Pond Winery and Distillery
Still Pond Winery and Distillery owner Charles Cowart tells the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County about the company's new venture into the spirit making business. Still Pond is currently at work producing premium moonshine, top shelf vodka and aged brandy.
Still Pond Photo Gallery
Still Pond Winery and Distillery is now entering the spirit business with the production of premium moonshine, top shelf vodka and aged brandy.
ARLINGTON — After nearly a year of uncertainty, Still Pond Winery, which has been supplying Georgia wine lovers with a variety of homemade wines for the past decade, is now taking things back to the farm’s roots with the company’s new line of premium moonshine, top shelf vodka and aged brandy made in the new Still Pond Distillery.
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Charles Cowart, owner of what is now known as Still Pond Winery and Distillery, said the decision to venture into the moonshine market made perfect sense for the company, since not only is moonshine quickly becoming one of the most popular spirits in the country, it adds yet another way for the family-owned business to diversify its product line.
The addition of the moonshine also brings the company together with the area’s prohibition past.
Still Pond Winery and Distillery gets its name from the property’s most widely known feature, Still Pond, a spring-fed pond located not far from the winery in rural Calhoun County.
The pond, according to Cowart, gets its name not because it has still water, but because of its long use of providing cool, clear water for a liquor still once run in the area by the Hunt Brothers.
“Still Pond is not called Still Pond because the waters were still,” said Cowart. “It was Still Pond because it was a big spring and there’d been illegal alcohol production there since before prohibition ever started. So, that’s why it’s Still Pond. We feel very akin to the old Hunt Brothers who made a living running moonshine out of the Still Pond as I was growing up as a child.”
The Cowarts became associated with the land through Cowart’s father, who worked as the general manager of a large cattle operation located on the property.
It was his father’s idea to begin planting muscadine grapes in the 1960s to provide extra work for seasonal farm hands and to provide extra income that could be generated during times when the farm wasn’t growing and harvesting corn and grain for the cattle.
“This was a large cattle operation and my father was the general manager,” Cowart said. “We grew corn for solids, small grain for feed and he didn’t have work for the farm workers during the winter so he came up with this idea of planting grapes. The first plantings went in in the late sixties. They had a contract with Canadaigua Winery in upstate New York. They’re a large concord grape winery in New York and they were using muscadine juice to blend with their concord juice.”
Having established a good business producing muscadine juice to sell to wineries, Cowart’s father purchased some of the acreage in the 1970s and began producing grapes full time in a retirement job.
“For many of those years we were hand-picking, packing and selling table grapes to supermarkets,” Cowart said. “When that market would get soft, we’d crank the old harvester back up and start selling whole grapes to wineries.”
The family ran the grape operation, producing both grape juice and whole grapes for a variety of wineries and grocery stores throughout the 1990s and when Cowart’s father died in 1991, he returned home and ran the operation himself.
“When my dad passed away that’s when I returned home full time,” said Cowart. “I was an only child and this was home for me.”
After streamlining the operation Cowart realized that the company was not far away from producing its own wine. Cowart and his son, Charlie, decided to go into the wine-making business and Still Pond Vineyard effectively turned into Still Pond Winery in 2003, the twelfth winery in the state and the first south of Atlanta.
“Our initial thought, we set out to put in a procession facility here on site,” said Cowart. “In the midst of the equipment gathering to do that it sort of hit home that we were basically a piece of paper away from becoming a winery and we can use this thing 12 months out of the year instead of just six months of harvesting time. So, that’s what we proceeded to do.”
Even after starting the its own wine-making operation, which currently produces 18 different wines, Still Pond still uses much of its grape production to make grape juice for wine making that is sold to other wineries. Cowart said the company has 180 acres of vineyard and only uses about 25 percent of the grapes produced to make Still Pond wine.
As the winery’s reputation for making its own wine grew over time the company decided to diversify its product lines and went about venturing into distilling spirits from the wine it was already producing.
Not long after beginning production, they were issued a cease and desist order from the Georgia Department of Revenue.
It appeared once the company began operating the distillery it impacted the way the state classified the company and Still Pond went from being considered a wine farming operation to a distillery that had to apply for one of three types of licenses; either a producers license, a wholesale license or a retail license.
“It was a very, very eye-opening and learning experience,” said Cowart. “For two and half years we worked on getting licensed for the distillery.”
Cowart further explained that when Still Pond began the distillery operation it no longer was viewed as a Georgia Farm Winery and therefore had to stop retail wine sales since producing spirits would mean the company would need a producers license.
Fortunately for the Cowarts and Still Pond, the Department of Revenue was willing to provide some assistance. Legislation was passed during the 2014 Georgia Legislative session that allowed the company to continue operating the distillery and making and selling its wine on site.
With those legal hurdles cleared, the family has turned its focus to the the production of spirits and hopes to begin producing more things in the near future.
“We’re the only winery and distillery in the Southeast,” said Charlie. “And up until we got the law changed there could not be a winery and distillery in the state. So, we’re the first in that.”
In addition to it’s winery operation, Still Pond produces three types of moonshine: it’s basic, clear colored Still Pond Moonshine, it’s aged Double Barrel Moonshine and a more favorable Peach Moonshine that has proven to be the company’s most popular moonshine.
The three types of moonshine are produced in the distillery’s copper onion still that was handmade by special order from Portugal.
Charlie, who serves as the company’s master distiller, said Still Pond can produce the basic moonshine in roughly 48 hours. The peach moonshine is made by infusing the basic moonshine with peach concentrate.
It takes slightly longer to produce the Double Barrel Moonshine, as it requires an aging process. Charlie said the clear moonshine is aged in heavily charred oak barrels to give the spirit its distinct amber-brown hue and is really a blend of moonshine from different aged barrels.
While the company is planning to continue making subtle tweaks to its moonshine, the current focus for the distillery is the development of a high-end vodka.
“Originally when we started out vodka was going to be our first product,” said Charlie. “The thing with moonshine and other products, you can run the still one day and as long as you’ve got the manpower you can have it in the bottle the next day. Vodka has to be distilled up to a certain proof and filtered through activated carbon.”
According to the Cowarts, vodka gets its distinction as vodka not from what it is made from but the way it is distilled. Since vodka originally comes from Russia, where potatoes are abundant, many think the spirit is distilled from potatoes only.
In truth, vodka can be made by using fermented fruit, corn or other grains and is actually considered vodka because during the distilling process it is distilled to 190 proof, nearly pure alcohol. Before it is bottled it is “cut,” using distilled water, down to the more common 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol content.
This process accounts for vodka’s reputation as being smooth and somewhat odorless. By contrast, whiskey and other liquors can be distilled to the desired alcohol content and then either aged or bottled without being diluted.
In order to distill to the high alcohol content required for vodka, Still Pond operates a second copper still, known as a column still, that assures the fermented wine goes through a rigorous distillation process to achieve the desired 190 proof.
Once the Cowarts put the finishing touches on the vodka product and design label Still Pond will be one of two distilleries, along with Ciroc, making vodka from grapes.
“We feel that we have a niche on (vodka),” said Charlie. “Grains are cheaper. That’s our competitive edge against other distillers. They use grains because they’re less expensive and there’s a lot of products made from grains But we’ve got truckloads of grapes. So we’re 100 percent truly a farm winery and distillery. What we use in the majority of our products is what we grow, which is grapes.”
Even though Still Pond is located in the heart of Georgia’s Bible Belt and in a rural area of a dry county, the company has flourished over the years due its simple family business model of farming most of its own ingredients, using water drawn from the land and putting love and care into every batch of wine and liquor it makes.
Still Pond is located off U.S. Highway 62 between Leary and Arlington, and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can shop in the retail storefront, or take a tour of the vineyard, winery and distillery, given by a Cowart.
Still Pond also hosts a variety of special events, such as wine tastings. For more information, visit the company’s website at www.stillpond.com.