Old Nick Williams Company – America’s Most Famous Forgotten Distillery

Handcrafted spirits made in small batches and seven generations of distillers make the Old Nick Williams Company or ONW as it is now today, a unique brand and a destination with a rich history. From a Revolutionary War Colonel to revenuers in the 1920’s, this family story has it all. 

Spotlight on Business talked with Zeb Williams, president and co-owner of Old Nick Williams Company, and a 7th generation distiller, about his family history, along with the challenges of rebuilding a distillery and his plans for the future for ONW.

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Zeb Williams’s family story is made for a novel. “My family has been in distilling since 1768. My fourth great grandfather, Joseph Williams, was a colonel in the Revolutionary War and he started the business here on the property in 1768. He received the original 8000-acre land grant and built his first still here at the age of 18.”

By the early 1800’s, the distillery, then known as the Joseph Williams Distillery, was becoming well known and was run by Nicholas Lanier Williams and his son, yet another Joseph Williams.  It was this Joseph who introduced a new brand of whiskey, called “Old Nick,” in honor of his father.

In 1893, Joseph’s son, Glen Williams rebranded the distillery as “Old Nick Williams Distillery.”   He set up and advertised at the World’s Fair in Chicago and, seven years later, was invited to set up at the Paris Exposition. This set the stage for world-wide distribution.  “We had a huge following in those days. We provided Presidents, Senators and Congressmen with our spirits and we have the historical documentation to back that up in our museum.”

“Essentially, the distillery here was built and passed along father to son until my great-grandfather inherited it. He’s the man that actually dealt with trials and tribulations of prohibition in North Carolina. A lot of people don’t know that North Carolina was the very first state in the U.S to enact prohibition in 1909.

“In 1909, we were forced to stop production on the farm and could only ship outside of state lines and internationally. In 1913, my great grandfather, Glen Williams, passed away at the age of 48 of what would now probably be considered a stroke. In 1920, after national prohibition was enacted, the revenuers actually came on to the property and disposed of over 28,000 gallons of aging whiskey that the family had stored in bonded warehouses.”

North Carolina was one of the last states to repeal prohibition and though family members made several unsuccessful attempts to begin distilling again, the distillery remained closed.

In 2014, Zeb, along with his cousin Matt, and their fathers, Van and John Williams, sixth and seventh generation distillers, began to rebuild the distillery and reopen the family business. “The fifth generation was kind of skipped over. So, we didn’t have those hundreds of years of education teaching us. It’s been a trial and error process. We have been troubled by one of the largest distilleries in the United States over naming rights and sued again by another company. So, it’s been a tough battle to use something that’s been our family for 250 years.”

Zeb didn’t set out to become a distiller. “I own a mobile billboard advertising company. I do large format installs – banners, car routes and things like that. I’ve been involved in advertising and marketing for about the last 15-20 years. So that gave me a slight advantage when we started the family distillery.” Zeb continues to run his advertising business while building the distillery.

“I think growing up it was every male Williams’ dream in this family to rekindle the business. I spent countless Saturdays and Sundays with my cousin Matt, digging in the trash piles left by the revenuers when they came in and broke all the bottles and the barrels. We were always looking for that elusive bottle that didn’t get broken.”

The Old Nick Williams farm and distillery was rebuilt on the original land now owned by Zeb’s father. “My dad is a retired school teacher of 35 years. He taught shop and built houses in the summer. So that’s been very advantageous for us with renovations as we built the farm and the distillery. My uncle’s retired as well. My cousin Matt flies as a paramedic on a helicopter here at one of the local hospitals.”

Prior to the COVID 19 shutdown, the distillery employed two additional staff. “Right now, it’s just us four business owners and my fiancé, Ashlee, that pretty much run the show and are involved every day. When we have a big event, everybody in the family gets to work that day. I put my kids to work. It’s a family run show.”

As the pandemic hit the country, the distillery pivoted to supply hand sanitizer. “That kept many doors open in this country and it made the business stronger, more diverse. And we came together as a family when we had to make important decisions to stay alive.” Williams believes all the struggles have made both the business and the family stronger.

After COVID 19 restrictions began, the distillery closed for in person shopping. “For the first month or so we pretty much locked the door and took orders via the internet. We left the orders on the front porch for pick up.” With the easing of restrictions now, distillery tours are back and the Busted Barrel Cocktail Bar is open again.

The name for Busted Barrel Cocktail Bar also points to family history.  “We chose that name because in the 1920s, when the revenuers came in, they broke and busted all the whiskey barrels, We couldn’t use our name, because it was already taken here locally as a bar, which can be confusing for customers.  So, if they roll into town and think “Let’s go to the ‘Old Nick Pub’ that’s not us.”

ONW has grown from simply a rebuilt distillery. “When we started the business, we started a distillery. Now we’re a distillery. We’re a museum. We’re a bar. We do outdoor concerts. It’s snowballed into multiple businesses – and with that comes a lot of work.

The distillery sits on a 15 plus acre farm parcel that offers room for even more growth. “We’ve got a 6000-bushel corn bin on the property and another 1500 bushel bin. We could start growing grains again back on the farm to sell to distilleries all over North Carolina. I’m really wanting to start bringing in beef cattle and feeding the cattle our grain and mash. After the COVID ordeal, people are getting back into buying cows and pigs whole and having them butchered, after seeing the shortages of meat in the grocery stores.”

The distillery offers the ONW Carolina Whiskey, made from the family’s pre-prohibition recipe, and the Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged for at least 2 years. The Coattail Cinnamon Whiskey was named in reaction to all the legal and other battles it took to get the distillery up and running in business and “for all the people who you feel are always riding on your coattails.”

Jamerican Rum is another distillery favorite. “The Jamerican line is dear to my heart. My fiance and I both went through divorces. We spent our very first vacation together out of the country in Jamaica and I fell in love with the rum there. The first thing we did was tour the Appleton distillery because that’s what I do when I go on vacation.  We fell in love with the people of Jamaica and the island and started traveling back and forth 2-3 times a year. When you’ve been there that many times, they start calling you a Jamerican. I thought the name was great and I came home and trademarked it and we developed our rum line.  The Jamerican Rum is “island inspired but made here in America.”

“Our still is a baby replica of what you find in the big distilleries in Jamaica and it allows us to make that very rich, heavy, high body rum that you typically see from Jamaica. We do a white version that’s 80 proof. We do a white overproof version that’s 126 proof. Then we do our aged version and we’re currently working on a spiced recipe.”

The distillery uses the same traditional pot still method to make both the rum and whiskey. “They basically use two thumpers. In Jamaica, they’re called retorts and in redneck whiskey making or moonshine, they’re called thumpers.”

The spirits are handcrafted, and family made. “We do everything at our facility by hand. We are zero automation. Our mill will mill about 300 pounds an hour and 1200 pounds of grain go into every one of our mashes. So that’s the amount of time we spend together making sure the product is finished properly. It’s filtered, not chill filtered, but sediment filtered to get out any impurities. And then all the bottles are filled basically by hand. They’re corked by hand with a machine that my dad made. The labels are put on by hand with every one of us standing there taking part.”

“We want to be that bottle of whiskey you take to your family at Christmas and tell the story and the rich history of the family and the brand. I want people to feel that camaraderie when they’re drinking our product – that feeling that you’re at home.”

by Anita Flowers