In his 1902 book “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” philosopher William James wrote that “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature.”
Jump forward over a century later, and that “mystical” tradition is alive and well at Mystic Farm and Distillery in Durham. Established in 2013 by co-owners Jonathan Blitz and Mike Sinclair, Mystic Farm began with what has become its signature product — Mystic Bourbon liqueur, a combination of bourbon whiskey, wildflower honey and a special tea made from nine different spices. Nowadays the distillery also produces a gin, and Blitz said that rum and vodka varieties are also in development.
“We’ve got about 10,000 square feet of space out here, and on an average week we produce between three and six barrels of whisky,” he said. “We also lease about 100 acres of farmland in Hillsborough.”
That farmland is a large part of what makes Mystic Farm special. Mystic Farm produces most of the corn and winter wheat used in its products, with Mystic Bourbon containing 45 percent wheat. Blitz said the distillery also gets its water from the Triassic Basin aquifer in the area, and plans to move toward barreling all of its whisky in barrels made from North Carolina oak wood.
Operating as self-sufficiently as possible is a major initiative for Mystic Farm, Blitz said. The distillery also operates a 50 kilowatt solar panel array, which he said has proven to be a boon for the company.
“Depending on the weather, on average it provides for between half and three-quarters of our energy consumption needs,” he said. “The distilling process is essentially about heating things up very quickly and then cooling them down very quickly, and so we require a lot of energy. All of our lights are LED, and we work to have as little of a carbon footprint as possible.”
Business has changed substantially for Mystic Farm in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The distillery has historically offered a range of on-site
experiences, for tours and tastings to an educational program known as Whiskey University which teaches guests about various ways of making whiskey throughout history and how those methods effect the end product.
Like many distilleries, Mystic Farm has also transitioned heavily into hand sanitizer production during the pandemic, and Blitz said it is likely that business will remain once the pandemic is over.
“We went pretty heavily in to it early on, and now we’re selling to nearby hospitals and universities,” he said. “It’s given us the capital not only to keep the business going, but to make sure we avoid any outstanding debt. It’s really been a lifesaver for the industry.”
One of Mystic Farm’s more unique attractions is known as the Single Barrel Experience.
“The Single Barrel Experience is really intense, it includes Whiskey University but you also make a barrel of whiskey with us, going through all the steps of the process yourself. Then those people have their names, or sometimes they’ll come up with a phrase, and they’ll use that to identify their barrel,” Blitz said, And then, each year after that, they’ll come back and get a pint from the barrel that they made.”
That kind of connection to the process can leave a lasting impression on people, Blitz said. An entire barrel of whisky is not cheap – Blitz said these barrels run around $12,000 for the entire thing – and yet at least one returning patron has already laid claim to the entire barrel he created in the single Barrel Experience.
“I think it gives people an appreciation for just how much effort goes into making that barrel of whiskey, when they’re in there turning the knobs themselves, and then to see the effects of those years of aging,” he said. “It really is a sort of mysterious and interesting process.”
For Blitz, Mystic Farm is a labor of love, born out of a genuine desire to boost the spirits industry in North Carolina.
“Before prohibition, we were the number one spirits producing state in the country, and we actually remained that way during most of prohibition,” he said with a laugh. “I think we lost something there, and we’re starting to get that back. I want people to learn to venture out a bit when buying spirits, because there are a lot of really good independent producers out there. People should take that risk on something they aren’t as familiar with.”