Southern Distilling Leads the Way in North Carolina


May 23, 2024

Vienna Barger Headshot Southern Distilling North Carolina

By Kevin Gibson

It was not that long ago that you could not purchase a bottle of whiskey from a distillery in North Carolina. A founder of Southern Distilling helped lead a charge to change that.

By 2013, a distillery visitor could purchase one. Per year. And would have to provide name, address, date of birth and more so that the distilleries could track everyone who purchased a bottle. Why? Because the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or ABC, could conduct a surprise audit at any time.

Vienna Barger (pictured), who founded Southern in Statesville, North Carolina, with husband Pete Barger, came into the distilling world with a background in public health and government policy. When the Bargers decided they wanted to open a distillery, they knew change had to come. That’s where Vienna’s background came in handy.

“It’s something I was familiar with,” she said, “and I had become comfortable spending time in Raleigh, waking the halls of our capitol.”

At that time, around 2011, Vienna recalls, there were maybe 10 distilleries operating in North Carolina. While change came slowly, it did come. Laws eased as more distilleries opened.

“It took us a long time to get that [limit] raised,” Vienna said. “We took it to 5 bottles per year. The only revenue that came through our front door was that they could purchase a tour or buy a hat or a t-shirt. We started to serve drinks and then Covid started.”

Today, there are more than 80 distilleries. A distillers’ association has been formed. And the Bargers’ Southern Distilling, which was conceived primarily as a contract distiller, now produces its own brand and is readying itself to dedicate itself to whiskey tourism.

Prior to Covid’s arrival, Southern Distilling was open to tourism, even if the Bargers couldn’t sell much of its distilled product – the law had eased to a whopping five bottles per customer per year by that point – and Vienna said in 2017, the distillery had visitors from all 50 states. Finally, in 2019, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed SB290 into law. That bill allowed distilleries to sell unlimited bottles directly to visitors and to sell mixed drinks at their distillery. 

As distillery tourism ramps up post-Covid, the Bargers and their team are digging into planning all the features for the reimagined 20-acre Southern Distilling campus. Vienna said there is an event space, a remodeled tasting room, marketing and inventory are ramping up, and partnerships with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the area soccer team, Charlotte FC, is set to help get the word out.

She said visitors will even be greeted by miniature donkeys.

“We’re getting going this summer,” Vienna said. The date for an official launch of the reimagined distillery is June 13.

That event will be a classic car show with a food truck and more. It also will kick off the Great Race Across America, a “race” of classic cars in which Pete Barger will participate. The route begins in Owensboro, Ky., and ends in Gardiner, Maine.

The distillery will play host to other events later in the summer, from tented festivals to music performances. Meanwhile, Southern’s brand, Southern Star, is selling well, and is a favorite at Charlotte FC matches and Carolina Panthers games.

More and more Southern Star products, from Paragon wheated bourbon to Double Shot bourbon cream liqueur will be rolled out to the public to help attract more and more people to not just the distillery but also North Carolina in general. Finally, after years of work, distilleries in the state are thriving.

And while few southern states will compete with Kentucky for bourbon tourism, the future in North Carolina looks bright for whiskey.

“We love all our friends in Kentucky,” Vienna said. “But we’re looking forward to putting our product on the map.”