Award-Winning Distiller is Alabama’s First

John Emerald Distilling Co., a small-batch distiller in Opelika, was born when the moon and stars of several events aligned. Today, the first legal distiller of whiskey in Alabama in 100 years produces two brands of rum, a gin, a vodka, and a single-malt whiskey that was a Southern Living magazine 2016 Food Award winner.

JED as it’s called is co-owned by the father-and-son team of John and Jimmy Sharp. But their story goes back a-ways with three Scottish brothers emigrating to America, including company namesake John Emerald Sharp.

The Sharps said Opelika is a “super business-friendly town” that made it perfect for John Emerald Distilling Co.

The downtown Opelika distillery also hosts functions and private parties. The Business Council of Alabama presented Champion of Business awards at the location recently during the Opelika Chamber of Commerce legislative reception.

“John and Jimmy Sharp have a massive small-business entrepreneurial spirit, an incredible work ethic, and a wonderful heart,” BCA President and CEO William J. Canary said. “It is a privilege to see their success and contribution to the renaissance in downtown Opelika first-hand.”

John and Jimmy had always home-brewed beer and once thought their future would be in craft beer brewing. But as they realized it was a crowded field, another thought percolated in their minds and three years ago John Emerald Distilling Co. fired up its first still.

Jimmy Sharp, left, and John Sharp, co-owners of John Emerald Distillery in Opelika. Jimmy is head distiller. Photo by Nicklaus Hines Photography.

JED had its roots 14 years ago when the decorative finishing company Jimmy worked for in New York summarily dismissed him as a Venetian plaster artist after learning he had ghost-bid a store project for Louis Vuitton. Jimmy returned to the Sharps’ hometown of Montgomery and he and his father started their own decorative plaster finishing company in John’s garage.

Jimmy tells the rest of the story.

“We had been home brewers as a hobby for more than a decade and always kicked around doing some version of that professionally,” Jimmy said. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s travels to South America for three weeks out of every month for Louis Vuitton was complicated by the birth of his daughter.

“I didn’t want to miss her growing up and that pushed our thinking more seriously in the direction of distilling,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy attended a distilling conference in 2013 and learned a lot and got into research. “The more we learned the more we determined we could do it,” Jimmy said.

Brewing and distilling school in Chicago followed, then training at a bourbon distillery, and a rum distiller in Colorado. Jimmy made the final commitment and at an internship at a distillery in Scotland. At the same time, he and his father were completing the Louis Vuitton store in the Miami area.

Photo by Caroline Porsiel.

Back home the Sharps kept looking for a suitable site for their stills and ended up in an old cotton warehouse in Opelika where a downtown renaissance was underway.

They released the first legally distilled product in 2015. The next year, Southern Living magazine conferred a Food Award on John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey, recognizing it as one of the best artisan-made products in the South.

All their products are named for family members: Elizabeth Vodka; Hugh Wesley’s Gin from hand-picked Alabama juniper berries; Gene’s Spiced Rum made from sugar cane grown in Headland; Spurgeon’s Barrel Aged Rum that is aged in JED’s used single-malt whiskey barrels; and, John’s Alabama Single Malt whiskey, the first legal whiskey made in Alabama in a century.

JED’s products are found in many ABC stores, in private package stores, and cocktail bars.

Jimmy said the business with five employees has its traditional business issues and the accompanying sales and support challenges.

“We’re working on a distiller’s guild so we can have some kind of organization,” Jimmy said. “We’re growing and are in five states now and reaching out to others. The market is growing in Alabama and area sales are increasing over time.”

Last year John Emerald Distilling Co. produced 2,500 proof gallons, about double the amount in 2015, Jimmy said. “We have the capability of making five or six times that,” he said.