Snake down the knobby Appalachian hills of the Blue Ridge Parkway into the city of Asheville, detour toward the historic Biltmore Village, and you might just find yourself at the warehouse-like distillery of Eda Rhyne. Inside you’ll see a giant mural from local artist Hannah Dansie depicting the distillery’s namesake: a woman from an old ghost story that takes place in neighboring Haywood County. Rest your bones on a vintage bubblegum pink sofa and toss back a $6 cocktail fueled by earthy amari. If you experience the drink the way Eda Rhyne hopes you will, a few sips could send you right back to the fragrant forests and fields of wildflowers in those loamy hills above, whose blue-tinged silhouettes now curve across the horizon.
Asheville is a forward-thinking mountain town in western North Carolina that thrives on both defying Appalachian stereotypes and holding them up to a mirror. At Eda Rhyne that means confronting Appalachia’s notorious history of illicit distilleries, which pump out high-proof moonshine for humble but proud mountain folk. What’s far less known, yet no less significant, is that some of that same liquor was traditionally syphoned off for a local medicine maker. Each hollow would have one, and they’d build up a rainbow of medicinal spirits by macerating local flora in alcohol to extract its remedial properties.
Eda Rhyne co-owner Chris Bower wants more people to know about that second part of the story. He says it’s been suppressed over the years as outsiders made locals feel ashamed for their folk remedies—a shame he wants to turn into pride by selling the spirits online nationwide. Bower hails from a crafty cast of family characters that includes moonshiners, bootleggers, and matter-of-fact herbalists with a stubborn affection for these ancient hills. Even his grandparents, who he says were teetotalers, had a cabinet at their rural Haywood County home with mason jars of corn liquor, which they only touched for medicine-making.
“I started learning about local edible medicinal plants as a young kid from my pappy and my grandmother,” Bower says. His grandparents treated the area’s hollows and hills like a pantry, searching for the 1,100-odd Appalachian plant species historically foraged for their medicinal properties. As a young adult he apprenticed to make liquor in the woods, following “old-timers or hippie mommas” as they transformed barrels of golden corn mash into a transparent spirit so fierce it’d burn your throat going down. With each run, he says, he’d drop in a few foraged finds.
That interest in medicinal Appalachian spirits eventually led Bower to Rett Murphy, an organic farmer turned distiller who also has some outlaw blood in his genes. (His great-grandmother, Alma Pinnix, was a famed guerrilla gardener before the term even existed.) Murphy had a similar madcap idea to commercialize traditional herbal liqueurs the way amaro makers have in Europe with products like Campari, Cynar, and Ramazzotti. If these kinds of folk spirits were celebrated across the Atlantic, why couldn’t they have a similar fate in America too?
The pair opened Eda Rhyne Distillery in 2018 to design craft interpretations of traditional herbal liqueurs, pairing heirloom corn and grains with sustainably harvested botanicals from the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. By law the co-owners can’t—and won’t—make any claims about the medicinal qualities of their line of eight spirits, “but a lot of the plants we use have been used traditionally as folk medicine,” Bower assures, including elderflower (for relief of flu symptoms) and rhubarb (for digestion).
Like the Carthusian monks of the French Alps who carefully guard the ancient recipe of 130 herbs and plants that go into Chartreuse, Murphy and Bower are similarly bound by a vow of silence about the foraged finds that fuel their Carolina amari. Some spirits, like the Rustic Nocino, have tidier profiles steered by a star ingredient (in this case, wild black walnuts). Others, such as the marvelously complex Amaro Flora, pair the earthy bitterness of roots and tree bark with a fragrant spritz of mountain flowers, sending your taste buds tramping into the bountiful Appalachian backcountry.