"Let's have a test," says Ollie Mulligan in his rich county Dublin brogue. "Try this and tell me what you think."
Standing in the elegant Broken Spoke bar adjacent to Mulligan's Great Wagon Road Distilling Company, tucked away in an industrial park near Charlotte's bustling South End neighborhood, the bearded distiller offers his visitor a cocktail made with his pet creation, Rua American Single Malt Whiskey.
"Feel no pressure," he adds with a mischievous chuckle. "But remember, my old Irish grandfather is probably somewhere watching."
The drink is an Old-Fashioned, a simple all-American bar classic that predates the Civil War and involves whiskey, simple syrup, a dash or two of bitters, a cherry and a slice of orange.
The visitor, who fancies himself somewhat of a bourbon aficionado, takes a wary sip and shakes his head. A huge grin lights up Mulligan's face. He seems to know the verdict before it's given.
"Wow. Is that ever good," gushes the surprised whiskey snob.
By now, Mulligan, 49, should be accustomed to this sort of enthusiastic reaction to the taste of Rua. The name means "red" in Gaelic. "Generally as in someone with red hair, which mine was before two kids," he quips. The simplest definition of a single-malt whiskey is one that is produced by a single distillery, using malted barley as the only grain in the mash. While single-malt spirits are produced throughout the world, most hail from Scotland, where they are aged in used sherry or bourbon casks. With its distinctive label and notes of vanilla and caramel, however, Rua is aged in virgin oak barrels and hails from the heart of south Charlotte with merely its soul born in the ancient Gaelic hills.
In 2016 at Christmastime, Mulligan's small-batch whiskey burst into public view after capturing first place in the drink category of Garden & Gun magazine's coveted annual Made in the South Awards. Prior to this breakthrough, the company was shipping a dozen or so bottles of Rua a week to customers through its online store, hoping to somehow gain a toehold in the competitive world of craft spirits.
"The next week, we sold 200 bottles and have never really slowed down since."
Not long afterward, Rua captured a pair of top honors at international spirits competitions in London and Los Angeles. "The really nice thing in Los Angeles was that Rua beat Buffalo Trace bourbon by a point, a spirit that is almost legendary among bourbon fans. We can only hope for that kind of acceptance someday...