Gibson Distilling Inc. (Headland)
The Makers: Lloyd and Kay Keel
Gibson Distilling in Headland is out to make drinking Alabama-made whiskey not only tasty and fun, but downright patriotic.
The distilling company recently released its latest offering – an unaged corn whiskey made with red, white and blue corn – just in time for the Fourth of July.
It joins a pretty robust product line for a small distillery in a small Alabama town.
It’s all a surprise to owners Lloyd and Kay Keel, who are amazed and thankful at how fast the business is growing.
The products are sold under the George Gibson label. “George” is Lloyd’s first name and “Gibson” comes from a local man who may have known a thing or two about moonshining. The new red, white and blue whiskey carries a George Keel label, after Lloyd, the master distiller.
For Keel, making whiskey is something he has … uh … experimented with since the 1970s. He studied the process and had a lot of trial and error before he felt like he had something others would want to buy. He got a federal permit in 2014 and started making and barreling his first bourbon.
“It’s like a chemistry set,” he said. “You get to go out and experiment and do different things.”
He had to wait two years for it to age before he could start bottling and selling that first batch.
When he did, it was more popular than he expected. After a few calculations, he realized he was going to sell out of the bourbon and rye whiskeys before his next batches would age out.
“It’s a little difficult to forecast your demand” two years out, he said.
That’s when Keel focused on vodka, gin and flavored moonshines.
“Those have been a really good business decision,” Keel said. “We’re selling a lot of the flavored products now. People just love our vodka and we have our gin and we sell a lot of gin, too.”
The flavored moonshines now make up a large part of Gibson Distilling’s business. They offer Southern favorites like peach, blackberry, blueberry and apple pie along with an unusual offering of coffee-flavored moonshine.
Gibson Distilling uses Headland Roasting Company’s Southern Pecan and Jamaican Me Crazy coffees for its coffee-flavored moonshine. While most who visit Gibson Distilling’s tasting room are hesitant to try it, those who do end up buying a bottle to carry home, Keel said.
Keel said he has freedom to try new flavors.
“I’m always back there in the back tinkering,” he said. “We’re a small distillery. I can afford to play a little bit and if I make a bad batch, well, we will just use it as fire starter.”
While the distillery may be small, it is growing.
“We’ve had to get really busy and start producing more and more,” Keel said. “We just got two new 1,600-gallon fermenters that we will try to bring online fall of this year.”
They are also adding about 4,000 square feet to the distillery.
Keel said his bourbon is made with 80 percent corn, 12 percent rye and 8 percent barley. The flavor is “just the way I like it,” Keel said, but said others have compared the flavor profile to Weller bourbon.
The rye whiskey is made with 90 percent rye and 10 percent barley.
The new red, white and blue label is made with 50 percent white corn, 25 percent Butchers Apron red corn and 25 percent Hopi Blue corn.
“We find that those work better for us than the yellow corn,” Keel said. “They’re much more smooth when you actually have a finished product than the yellow corn. It costs a little more, but, hey, I like it better.”
While Keel is “tinkering” in the back at the distillery, his wife and co-owner, Kay, is running the tasting room and handling sales out front.
“Kay is my official taster,” Lloyd said.
The company is marketing through the state’s ABC Stores from Montgomery south to the Florida line and from Andalusia east to the Georgia line. It can also be found in some restaurants, bars and independent liquor stores.
For now, that’s about as much as Gibson Distilling can manage.
“It’s just moving forward at a pace that it’s been a little challenging to keep up with,” Keel said.
Gibson Distilling Inc.
The product: Bourbon, rye and corn whiskeys, gin, vodka, flavored moonshines.
Take home: A George Gibson bourbon, a George Gibson Blueberry Moonshine and a George Keel Red, White and Blue limited-edition corn whiskey (prices vary).