Distiller Discussions: Mark Sorrells of GIA Distillery

Mark Sorrells and Scott Spaid

For my first ever Distiller Discussion, I welcome distiller Mark Sorrells of GIA Distillery. GIA (pronounced Gee-ah) Distillery produces a delicious one-year-old whiskey named FJW that is distilled using the solera method. In addition, Mark’s distillery produces Francesca Grappa. To learn more, watch the YouTube video or read the transcript below.

Scott Spaid:       Hey everybody out there in Internet Land, this is Scott Spaid of Whiskey Bent! I wanna say hi to all the whiskey benders watching this, this is our distiller discussion series where I find distillers who are willing to tell us all their secrets – no, just kidding! – but hopefully, we’ll learn a thing or two about some interesting folks out there that produce some different spirits, and today we have Mark Sorrells of – let me get it right – GIA Distillery?

Mark Sorrells:       Perfect, you did the right word!

Scott:       Thank you! I’ve seen it on the internet and I was pronouncing it like gee-ah, gee-ay-ah, but now I know how to do it, you get your FJW whiskey and when you try it and you go “Gee! Ahhhh.”

Mark:       There you go! That’s perfect.

Scott:       GIA distillers! Where are you located?

Mark:       We are located in Madison, North Carolina, which is about 20 minutes north of Greensboro. I actually live in Atlanta and make the drive up about every other week and everybody always asks, “Why are you in Atlanta and your place is up there?”. Well my wife with her job gets transferred quite a bit and so we were living in Greensboro when a friend of mine said “Do you want to open a distillery?” and I was like sure! And about the time we signed the lease on the building she got transferred to Virginia Beach, so we spent 3 years in Virginia Beach and now she’s transferred to Atlanta, so my drive went from a 5-hour drive now to about a six-and-a-half-hour drive. So it’s a little tougher!

Scott:       You can’t really pick up and move a distillery.

Mark:       No, it’s kinda tough and when your business partner’s up there and you’ve got you know, all your connections and your licenses are all in North Carolina it’s a lot to go through!

Scott:       Yes! Tell us about your partner.

Mark:       He is a pretty private person so I’ll give you… his first name is Sal. Sal grew up in, he’s 64 years old, he grew up in Sicily. He moved to the United States 35 years ago because his dad was sick and he had 7 or 8 brothers and sisters so he moved to New York with $600 in his pocket speaking no English and that first month he was able to send them like $1000 back. So this guy’s just phenomenal with money, he’s a phenomenal worker, still! He works circles around me; he gets up and is working at 7 and he’ll go to 9 or 10 at night doing bottling. I’m like “Sal! I’ve gotta go to bed, I can’t do this!” and he’s still there just going, going, going! So, he’s a perfect partner. He has other businesses that he’s involved in and that’s why he’s you know, kind of a private person about what he’s involved in, but yeah, we get along well and his wife was actually my real estate agent in Greensboro so that’s how we met them.

Scott:       Yeah, so there’s your start, your origin story.

Mark:       Yes!

Scott:       Mentioning that he’s from Italy really will make more sense in a few minutes when he starts talking about the different expressions that you produce.

Mark:       It sure will

Scott:       Yeah tell us what – you have two main expressions I believe?

Mark:       Yes, we started production probably early 2018 and we were doing what was called Jordan’s Cabin Bourbon, and Jordan’s Cabin was actually a 200-year-old cabin in this little down of Madison so we’re trying to honour them by naming this after them and they were real excited about it. About 6 or 8 months later we got a cease and desist letter from a winery in California that said they owned the name Jordan in the alcohol space so we had to revamp everything. Labels, the whole 9 yards, we had to start over. So when we revamped, Sal’s son owns a restaurant in Greensboro called Jita and he runs the Bourbon Club for the Triad area which is Winston, Greensboro and High Point. So he said while him and I were talking one day “Let’s do something different now that we have to make a new label,” he said “Let’s experiment with the solera style. There’s quite a few companies looking at this” he said, “There’s two bourbons out there that are doing it that were real popular back then” and so now that solera style kind of falls in people are doing gosh, rums, scotches, of course whiskeys that’s what we’re doing, and so we went from calling it Jordan’s Cabin Bourbon Whiskey to Jorda- I’m sorry, to FJW Solera Whiskey and we cannot use the word ‘bourbon’ – there it is right there! – we did leave the little cabin on there at the top, so that’s actually Jordan’s Cabin at the top in the picture, but we decided to… I’ve lost my train of thought!

Scott:       No, you’re fine there! Tell people – I think you were getting to the solera style, what exactly that is

Mark:       So, Solera is, it’s an old European style of ageing; mainly in Spain they do it with ports. What they do is they’ve got their barrels all stacked vertically and so each row of barrels from the top to the bottom is very important as one system, ok? So, what we do is when we’re ready to bottle we’ll take 4 gallons out of each barrel along the bottom line, ok? That becomes, we mix all of that together but then what happens is the solera magic and solera means something like ‘waterfall’ in Spanish (I may have that wrong but it’s somewhere like that) so what happens is then we have to move 4 gallons from that 1 barrel above it to fill the bottom one back up – 4 gallons, 4 gallons, then when you get to the top of the stack of 7 barrels the new 4 gallons, the clear liquid goes in up there. So, what you do is you get a mixture of all the ages of the product which is really cool, and it works very well. That product you’ve got right there is right at a year old and I say put that in a glass unmarked and put a glass of Woodford Reserve right beside it – they’ll choose that. We’ve done that a few times and it’s amazing!

Scott:       We’ll do that, because in the next week of two my partner and I are going to do a tasting featuring FJW! We’ll bring some Woodford or something similar

Mark:       Yeah do a blind test with Woodford, it’s amazing. And so, we entered our first tasting competition last Fall, it was an international tasting competition and we got a silver medal – I was hoping for more but I’m happy with that because it was an international competition.

Scott:       Great, wow

Mark:       So that worked out well. And I guess from there we kind of lead into the next product which has Sal my partner written all over it. He is – the way we got together and got started in this business is he was like – I had a little still that I experiment with and I did little bottles of rum for people for Christmas and stuff like that – and he was like “Can you make grappa?” and I was like “Sal, I don’t even know what grappa is, but I’m sure we can make it!” so he said “Well go buy a bottle at the liquor store from Italy, tell me what you think about it,” so I did, I paid like $50, clear bottle of grappa… it tasted like heresy. And I was like “Sal I’m pouring this whole bottle out, this stuff is nasty I don’t like it” he said “Well we all grew up on it over there!” so to them they like that taste but he said, and what grappa is I guess I need to explain what it is in the first place, when they squeeze the grapes and the stems to get the juice to make wine those stems and skins left over are free so they found out, I don’t know, 1000 years ago that they could add a little water to it, let it ferment and distil it – that’s grappa. But back before this, probably like 1000 years, back 1000 years ago – about 400 years when they started doing it this way but back 1000 years ago they used the whole grape, ok? They still made the grappa but they crushed it through the crusher and then put everything back in with juice. So, you get grappa with which you get this overwhelming grape smell when you smell it, so ours still has the bite of grappa that they love but it still has a smoothness, it finishes on the back of your throat more like a cognac.

Scott:       Is this still in the solera method?

Mark:       No, it’s not done in the solera method it’s actually quick aged in some French Oak just to give it a little color, but the taste comes more from the way we do it with the full grape. And nobody else will do that because that’s very expensive – if you think about it the people making grappa in America are mostly, there’s a few wineries that got their distillation license to do it because think of all that leftover waste and it’s a good way of just, you know, to reuse it, and it comes out – it’s cheap, so by the way we do it the cost is a lot more because we have to pay for the grapes and then turn the grapes into juice and then put it all back together.

Scott:       I’m gonna try it, I haven’t ever had grappa.

Mark:       I found out just from doing taste tests in all the ADC stores in North Carolina that grappa is something you ever love or you totally hate – there’s no in between. It’s kinda funny, there’s not some people that’re like “Oh that’s OK” they’re either like “Eugh!” or “Man, that’s good!”

Scott:       Yeah!

Mark:       So what we do on our bottles is we actually have hang tags that explains a little bit about grappa and then it has you know, 4 or 5 cocktail recipes that he uses in the GIA restaurant that are really good

Scott:       Wow! I’m looking forward to it, I like trying new things, I’ll be honest in the review [laughs]

Mark:       [Laughs] Please do!

Scott:       If I don’t like it I’ll let everyone know but I’ll be nice about it!

Mark:       Yeah and like I said, it’s gonna be one way or the other so don’t sugar-coat it!

Scott:       Do you have any plans for any future expressions?

Mark:       We do. There is a winery in France called de Gaulle and de Gaulle if you look it up their bottles run from $300-$1000 a bottle, ok? Turns out our distributor in South Carolina who is French is best friends with the guy that owns de Gaulle so he was able to get us – and they’ve never shipped barrels, empty barrels to North America – he was able to get 7 barrels from the winery after they were used and we filled them with single malt and they are, they were put in in May of last year, it’s wonderful already.

Scott:       How long are you gonna let that lay?

Mark:       Probably gonna give it until next year and the first barrel’s probably gonna be a limited release with the Bourbon Club and Winston and Greensboro, they basically committed to buy the barrel and you know, we’ll of course bottle it for them.

Scott:       Yeah, great! Then we’ll be back here maybe in person doing another one of these then!

Mark:       Well you know if it, if everything still is good as it is now maybe we’ll go and bottle the rest of it, I don’t know! We thought we’d just let it sit and do a barrel each year but-

Scott:       Oh, I like.

Mark:       If we get enough response off of it we may go ahead and do it, and maybe solera those barrels and start all over, so we’ll see.

Scott:       I love it, this is great because it’s not your same you know… it’s not Jim Beam, you know? This is really interesting.

Mark:       It’s not, you know, it’s not another vodka that’s… first time I walked into the liquor store in Madison the lady that manages it and I were talking, she said “Don’t make a vodka. Somebody came in here the other day with sprinkled donut vodka”.

Scott:       Oh my gosh!

Mark:       And she said “They’re just going nuts on this vodka kick and there’s too many, there’s too many rums…” so what do you do? There’s almost too many whiskeys and bourbons but they tend to get drank more.

Scott:       I spoke with a distiller in Hawaii last week and he, a micro distillery verging on hobby, and he tries all kinds of things and one of them is Ahi Tuna flavored vodka…and uh…

Mark:       I don’t think so.

Scott:       No, no, I’m gonna see if he’ll send me one, I’ll try it if he sends it!

Mark:       Is it made to put in like Bloody Marys or something?

Scott:       Yes that’s what he said they’re best in. I would imagine if you know, I asked him is Japanese people like it a lot because they really enjoy that fishy flavor and … I’m intrigued, maybe it’s one of those tastings that would go viral [laughs] I don’t know, we’ll see!

Mark:       I’m just in my mind trying to think how he uh, put it in like a gin basket and you know, steamed the alcohol through it or if he just… how he flavored it, that’s what I’d like to know!

Scott:       He puts the fish in the grape crusher and starts turning the wheel…

Mark:       Oh, I get it!

Scott:       I don’t know, oh my god, yeah! Well this is great, I’m gonna do a tasting with the two expressions you sent to me (thank you very much for those) I’m gonna get this on my channel and hopefully the folks watching this right now have learned something – I know I did – and we’ll keep in touch because of all the things you have going on and I really look forward to meeting you in person.

Mark:       Sounds great, and you know, just to add that it’s www.giadistillery.com if they wanna come look at the website and if they’re ever around Greensboro North Carolina look us up, we’re open on Saturday – starting in July, after the Covid!

Scott:       Yes!

Mark:       Starting after July 4th we’ll be open every Saturday.

Scott:       Well I bid everyone a fond adieu for this episode of Distiller Discussions. Scott Spade of Whiskey Bent – Bye Mark!

Mark:       Thank you, enjoy, take care!


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