Step away from the tonic—doctor’s orders. Dread River Distilling Company’s vodka, crafted with 100 percent red winter wheat, is meant to be sipped straight, not desecrated with flavorless filler. When on the premises, the distillery’s founder and board chairman, Vestavia Hills doctor Jeff Dugas, leads by example, vodka on the rocks in hand. It might seem a dodgy drink of choice to those unfamiliar with the fact that yes, there is vodka worth sipping, but it begs the leading question about the spirit’s quality.
It’s a discussion Dugas welcomes, seeing as he’s partially responsible for the manufacture of one of these rare varietals, among other smooth-sipping spirits. A managing partner at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center, the nationally renowned surgeon approaches his other ventures with the same premeditated precision he brings to the operating table.
Dugas’ orthopedic expertise has landed him a slew of side gigs, from WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) Medical Director to Olympics team consultant to the Vestavia Hills High School team doctor. But it’s his chemical engineering background, knack for problem-solving, and vacation preferences that propelled him to the historic undertaking of establishing Birmingham’s first—and the state’s largest—distillery.
In the early 2000s, Dugas and his wife, Tracie, built a home on a secluded, 10-square mile barrier island in South Carolina called Daufuskie, a doable six-hour drive from Birmingham. To their surprise about five years ago, their new neighbor, a retired Kentuckyan with family ties to the bourbon industry, Tony Chase, opened a rum distillery on the island.
While sharing a drink of Daufuskie Island Rum with his curious neighbor one night, Chase mused, “You know, Birmingham is the biggest city in North America that doesn’t have a distillery.”
Inspired by this intoxicating conversation, Dugas picked up the phone the next day with full intent to fill that void. Soon thereafter, he met the acquaintance of Lisa Cooper, then-chief development officer for Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s administration. “If I have to give credit to anybody in the city of Birmingham for making this happen, it strongly goes to Lisa Cooper. She took the football and ran with it,” says Dugas, who unconsciously sprinkles his speech with a copious amount of sports metaphors. No harm, no foul.
Cooper convinced the mayor and his entourage to join Dugas on a field trip to Nashville-area distilleries to see how it’s done. The trip culminated with Bell’s blessing, contingent on an event space as part of the grand business plan for Dread River, named after the mythical stream flowing underneath the city (a well-circulated tale concocted by a 19th century con artist).
Having gotten the greenlight, Dugas lured his now-Dread River co-founder John Cubelic, away from the film industry in New York and back to Birmingham to spearhead the company’s creative vision and oversee everything he couldn’t. Cubelic, a former Auburn football player and jack-of-all-trades, boasts a background in experiential marketing and an upbringing in the wholesale alcohol industry. Having witnessed the proliferation of cool concepts in his hometown—cool in general, just not for Birmingham, he’ll clarify—Cubelic knew the time was ripe for bringing a distillery to the Magic City.
And so Dugas and Cubelic trotted across the country to pick the brains behind 50 different distilleries, in search of best—and worst—practices. Having traversed outside the geographical bounds of Southern hospitality, the pair weren’t expecting the warmest of welcomes to their research study, an uncommon approach to starting a distillery. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
“The collegiality that was afforded to us by other distilleries is nothing short of phenomenal,” Dugas says, tipping his glass back to savor the last few drops of Dread River vodka. “They rolled out the red carpet for us and opened their hearts, their minds and their histories. And they did it without any sense of holding back. I didn’t expect it.”
Through this vicarious learning experience, Dugas and Cubelic were able to avoid disasters like fire code violations and revenue-related predicaments. Early on, they developed a close relationship with the Birmingham Fire Department, who was “nothing shy of incredible,” in helping them out of a pickle or two with the regulatory “goalies.” And as it turned out, Bell was very right about needing an event space. Dread River would become the first distillery to apply for an event space license at the same time as their distilling license, eventually landing in the former Peck & Hills Antiques building on Seventh Avenue South in Southside.
“Everybody said, ‘It takes time to make brown sprits. And if you don’t have an outlet for revenue, there are only so many bumper stickers and T-shirts that are going to sell,’” Dugas recalls, grateful he heeded his peers’ warnings.
With the blueprint complete (thanks to Bill Segrest and Lauren Gwaltney of Williams Blackstock Architects), Dugas assembled quite the pack of power players—those he knew could move the project forward. He’ll take the credit only for recognizing and harnessing the talent of the all-star Dread River crew.
In his past life, Dread River CEO Brian Rodgers was a lawman-turned-chef whose selections graced the taste buds of wildlife enthusiasts at Five Star Preserve in Kellyton, Alabama. The sommelier’s buying power led to a cozy relationship and an eventual position with the ABC Board. Hailed as one of the foremost spirits experts in the Southeast, Rodgers has selected over 2,000 barrels, designed programs for national distilleries, and given thousands of seminars on the topic. And while a dozen distilleries have sought out his advice, he’d never considered joining forces with one, until he tried distiller Carl White’s spirits.
“Was it worth moving my family from Auburn up here to leave a secured, vested job with the state? Absolutely yes,” Rodgers says, adamantly.
Dread River’s distilling savant Carl White began his spirits journey less than a decade ago at Asheville Distilling Company/Troy & Sons, founded by Troy Ball, the first woman to open a commercial distillery in North America since Prohibition times. After a chance encounter with Ball, White found himself at the distillery during its infancy, working alongside the ex-master distiller of Maker’s Mark and the ex-master distiller of Woodford Reserve. Since then he’s helped design and launch three labels for Doc Porter’s Distillery in Charlotte, North Carolina. And now, Birmingham’s premier distillery is capitalizing on his talents.
White crafts each of his premium spirits on a hybrid, 5,000-liter German-made pot still, the largest in the U.S. at the time of its construction in 2012. According to Dugas, White has designed custom modifications to this “Ferrari of a still,” expanding the production capacity by more than 12 times since inheriting it from Asheville Brewing Company. Vodka, rum, gin, whiskey, agave spirts—you name it—they can, and will, do it.
While each of the distillery’s spirits has a distinctive personality, each inherited an admirable character trait from their maker: they don’t bite. “Everything we make is very smooth, a lot of vanilla, caramel notes,” Dugas boasts. “Carl is a scientist at the highest level of manipulating alcohol. We told him what we want, and he made it to T.”
White may be a relatively young distiller, but his spirits are bound to appeal to seasoned palates. The distillery’s flagship product, its whiskey, falls somewhere between a Weller and a Maker’s Mark, but it’s sweeter and smoother than both—per Dugas’ request.
Dread River takes pride in using only the “hearts” from the distillation process, meaning at least half of the alcohols produced, the “heads” (the dangerously alcoholic stuff of old Moonshiners) and the “tails” (the degenerative, dirty sock-smelling, hangover-inducing alcohols the big boys use) are trashed.
“We’re not doing this for the novelty of it,” explains Dugas. “We could have put up a distillery and spent a tenth of what we did, and some would have bought it. But I wouldn’t have tied my name and reputation to this if I thought we couldn’t be in a conversation with the best in the world.”
While Dugas will have you know that Dread River is a distillery first and foremost, its supporting arms could operate as successful standalone businesses—they’re that good. Events Director Cyd Quick has been curating unforgettable guest experiences since the 1990s, when she managed front-of-house for Frank Stitt restaurants. Master Brewer Michelle Piechowicz’s small-batch brews (which will remain an in-house production solely) are the stunning result of fresh and local ingredients. And Executive Chef Craig Olack, who worked with Chris Hastings for six years prior to his training at The Culinary Institute, makes a burger Dugas says he’ll stack up against anybody’s in town.
Unlike the 19th century charlatan behind their namesake, Dread River’s ambassadors are no snake oil salesmen. This stuff isn’t just good for Birmingham. It’s real good.
Distiller’s Select Straight Whiskey – A vanilla, caramel flavor with a nice butterscotch and chocolate finish with a sweet and smoky aroma
Gin – A predominately citrus flavor with hints of grapefruit, lemongrass, cucumber, with a delightful juniper finish
Rum – tropical nose with melon and fruit notes and a finish of dark brown sugar molasses
Vodka – Sweet, floral, with a hint of citrus—a lingering vanilla flavor with a smooth, clean finish
Bourbon, rye and agave spirts are coming soon to Dread River. Find their spirits at the distillery at 2400 7th Avenue South in Southside or at your local ABC Select Spirits store.