Old Nick Williams: ‘Forgotten’ distillery makes epic comeback

People parked their cars in the grass and walked through fields and lawns, up a gravel road, toward the top of a small hill, little more than a rise.

It was a pilgrimage of sorts, on this Fathers Day weekend in 2017, a few miles west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

People, some 500 of them by conservative estimates, came to swallow oysters and chew on burgers. To hear folk and roots music.

They ate and talked as they wandered the property and anticipated standing in the deep line. They wanted a taste of history. They wanted some Old Nick.

Established in 1768 and later a victim of Prohibition, Old Nick Williams was once an industry stalwart, as I wrote in my book, “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.

“Our products are old family recipes and are produced with local quality grains with the same love and craftsmanship like our family has done for hundreds of years,” the distillery’s Zeb Williams, a descendant of the founders, told me last summer.

“America’s most forgotten distillery,” it proclaims.

Time to remember.

The Old Nick Williams whiskey story is rich and complex, wrapped in war, passion and innovation. Soaked with images of world fairs and presidents. Of old homes, forgotten safes and private stocks.

Prohibition came to North Carolina in 1908. It ended in 1938, far behind much of the country.

But the memories remained clear and bright, untarnished with age.

In 2014 two brothers, Van and John Williams, and their now grown sons, Zeb and Matt Williams, decided it was time.

The distillery boom in North Carolina was nascent yet emerging. The Williams’ originally contracted with Foothills Distillery in Conover, N.C., to make their “wheated” white whiskey and Carolina bourbon.

But Old Nick came home June 17. To that same family farm in rural Forsyth County.

I got a bottle of the bourbon, made with wheat and malted barley and part of the stock remaining from the Conover distillery. It clocks in at 92 proof and has a sweetness of ripe fruit and a peppery finish.

The distillery offers taste of the unaged spirit fresh off the still, around 117 proof.

Zeb Williams is leading one of probably dozens of tours, surrounded by barrels filled with aging bourbon, mash tuns, stills and local artwork. Made at the new distillery.

It’s warm outside by the distillery is hot. Williams is unfazed. He talks about the grains, of grinding them at the distillery. He talks mostly about the process, but his excitement, despite the heat and repetition, is tenable.

“Everything is by hand here,” he says.

As it was more than 100 years ago. Right here.