A lively, light filled gathering spot for the “spiritually” inclined in the charming, low country coastal village of Bluffton, South Carolina
Bluffton, South Carolina
In March of 2021 Billy and Sean Watterson opened their latest venture, the Burnt Church Distillery in Bluffton, South Carolina. It is a monumental structure clad in local brick with multiple blackened windows and a large, shimmering brass cross anchoring the two imposing front doors. Driving by the Distillery one might think that a new church has been built on the edge of this vibrant community. Although it is not a house of worship, the spirits of the Burnt Church Distillery continue to attract a devoted following interested in an entirely different kind of communion.
If the words “Burnt” and “Distillery” were removed from the front of this masterpiece of brick, metal, marble and glass leaving only the word “Church” it would leave people to wonder…what denomination is that?
Now that thousands of people have passed through the striking front doors and entered the Sanctuary to sit at the stunning bar while sampling various spirits, it is clear that the Watterson brothers have indeed created a modern day temple. Only this is a temple to entrepreneurship, to in-the-veins hard work and dedication along with an ethos that places good taste, a great experience and giving back to the community above all else.
Once inside this gorgeous, theatrical building patrons are introduced to “The Study”, a thoughtfully curated space showcasing the history of the region…of wars fought, emancipation, oyster roasts and what life was like along the May River. In the appropriately named room the uninitiated (me, for instance) are given more than just a snapshot of what life was like here in the early days. Although it is tempting to head straight into the “Sanctuary” it is well worth the time to absorb and reflect on the people, places, events and culture that shaped this region…and to a great extent, continue to do so.
Across from the The Study lies the Mercantile, where patrons can shop for high quality branded apparel, hats, leather goods, coffee mugs along with the fascinating book titled “Burnt Church Road…Unraveling the Story Behind the Name”. For those with an interest in history, with a splash of mystery, this is a must read book. Preferably late at night with a tumbler of Four Grain Johnny Fever.
After all…it’s important to set the right mood.
Once you pass under the iron bridge that connects the second floor spaces you enter the “Sanctuary”, a room so architecturally striking that it takes your breath away. Situated in the middle of the room are four floor-to-ceiling brick pillars and a three sided marble topped bar ready to greet customers with flights of various spirits or expertly crafted cocktails.
On the far wall of the room there are shelves showcasing the eight spirits that Burnt Church Distillery currently offers, in addition to one non-alcoholic drink called Amethyst. Not content to craft only whiskey the Watterson brothers also produce Bourbon, Gin and Vodka and in a tribute to this regions moonshine history… Sippin’ Saint Moonshine. Offered in five unique flavors this ain’t your great grandfather’s white lightning!
High above the back wall is a large and astonishingly beautiful stained glass window created by Bluffton artist Laurel Herter of Laurel Herter Design. Resembling something you might see in a cathedral, but devoid of any religious connotation, it is a masterpiece in composition and color and the source for many conversations among patrons and staff alike.
Laurel is also working on an etched glass piece that will sit atop a large section of the Secession Oak that rests in the entrance of the distillery. The Secession Oak remains one of the Low Country’s most enduring historic symbols as it provided the momentum for the Palmetto State’s secession in 1860. It was under that tree that the Bluffton Movement began, serving as a major turning point in Southern history.
Once in place the museum quality, one-of-a-kind installation will tell the story of this historical tree from a black perspective.
The distillery’s production room is enclosed in a floor-to-ceiling glass space giving patrons the chance to view the gleaming copper and stainless steel tanks, polished concrete floors and stunning handcrafted metalwork that are the bespoke trademarks of this state-of-the-art operation. It is truly a work of art in its own rite.
Entertainment figured prominently into the brothers scheme of things and, as such, there is Square 67, a large outdoor space dedicated to special events and summer evening concerts. There are also private VIP spaces located within the Sanctuary as well as on the mezzanine level.
Burnt Church Distillery also offers four levels of membership from Brand Ambassador to Corporate Memberships. A portion of all four membership fees go toward philanthropic efforts every month. Community means more than mere lip service to the Watterson brothers. Their mantra of “purpose beyond profit” is the real deal and is an exemplar of their roots.
Rounding out the monthly arts and entertainment calendar, BCD hosts a Local Artisan Market at the distillery on the second Sunday of each month. Although the distillery is closed on Sunday’s the market still draws an art and food truck loving crowd from all over the Hilton Head area. Again, and in keeping with the philanthropic efforts of the distillery, a portion of the proceeds from the market benefit various charities in the community.
Back at the distillery, after patrons have worked up an appetite with all that sampling and friendly conversation they can mosey over to the Pizza Co. for a brick oven pizza or two along with various chopped salads and on tap beer. All food can be enjoyed outdoors on handcrafted tables and chairs with oversize umbrellas in Square 67. Of course if there are food trucks onsite on any given weekend hungry locals are sure to be queued up longer than a conga line at your cousin Vinny’s wedding.
Much has been written about the amount of capital required to design and build the Burnt Church Distillery. As substantial as it was, as much, if not more, human capital was also invested by the Watterson brothers, their architect, the builders, the construction crews, the PR firm and local artists along with the numerous talented and dedicated employees that now call Burnt Church Distillery their home-away-from-home.
While folks may come from all over the country to experience the fine spirits and friendly atmosphere of Burnt Church Distillery, it is the low country community that gives this one-of-a-kind gathering spot its heart and soul.