The Great Wagon Road leads to Charlotte-made whiskey

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Patrick Quinn was arrested in 1954 in Ireland for making poteen — moonshine — on his farm.

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Sixty-one years later, his grandson, Ollie Mulligan, is making poteen in Charlotte — legally.

Mulligan created Great Wagon Road Distilling Company in 2013 and started making his spirits in 2014. This week, he officially opened his South End distillery to the public.

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At the distillery — 227 Southside Drive, across the street from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and beside Sugar Creek Brewing — you can take a tour and buy a bottle.

But next door, you’ll be able to get Great Wagon Road’s liquor by-the-drink at The Broken Spoke, a bar that’s technically a separate operation from the distillery but obviously affiliated. Mulligan hopes it will open this weekend, but watch the Facebook page for updates.

It’ll open as a laid-back “private club” (click here to join) with a full bar — beer, wine, liquor — comfy chairs, couches, and a beautiful wood bar that came from a felled white oak on Selwyn Avenue, thanks to Treecycle America. Next year, he’d like to have a small menu inspired by his Irish roots — meat pies, cornish pasties, paninis, soups, etc.

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Mulligan moved to the U.S. from Ireland in 1994 and worked in telecommunications. (He still has a full-time job, but he’s taken a three-month “sabbatical.”) Opening a distillery “was always in the back of my mind,” he said.

Unlike homebrewing, you can’t (legally) distill without a permit, so Mulligan did research for six months and studied under master distillers in Seattle and Chicago before tinkering with his own recipes in 2014 in his old Pineville location.

The name refers to the route that many early settlers used to come from Pennsylvania into the South. Tryon Street was originally part of the Great Wagon Road.

Mulligan currently sells three types of liquor — Poteen (moonshine; $26.70), Bán (Gaelic for “white,” a vodka; $28.40) and Rúa (Gaelic for “red,” a whiskey; $47.50).

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The water that cuts the alcohol he makes comes from a natural spring on land he owns in Burnsville, N.C. Every week or two, he drives up there, fills up on water and brings it back to the distillery. The mash — the stuff that beer and liquor is made from — comes from OMB, which he partnered with earlier this year.

I tried the whiskey at 10:30 a.m. yesterday (my job is really hard sometimes). I’m no whiskey connoisseur — I drink a lot of Jim Beam — but the first sip of Rua was smoother than I expected with great, balanced flavor. The second sip was smoother. It’s a good sipping whiskey, meaning you shouldn’t mix this with Coke Zero.

Whiskey — unlike clear liquors like vodka — takes a little more TLC to make because it has to be aged in barrels, which give it that caramel flavor and darker color.

“A lot of effort went into that,” he said as I sipped. “You want to be a patient man if you want to get into the whiskey business. … You can’t replace time. That’s my philosophy.”

Where to get Great Wagon Road spirits: You can buy one bottle per year per person at the distillery (the Rua isn’t for sale yet, but should be soon). You can also ask your local ABC store to order it if they don’t already have it on the shelves.

Photos: Corey Inscoe

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