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New Bluffton distillery wants to put the ‘spirit’ in the Lowcountry

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Distilleries in South Carolina can now serve mixed drinks under a bill passed this year by the General Assembly.
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Distilleries in South Carolina can now serve mixed drinks under a bill passed this year by the General Assembly.

A new distillery wants to come to Bluffton — and it’s proposing to annex more land into the town to do it.

Burnt Church Distillery, a proposed facility that would house a 20,000 square foot tasting room of craft whiskey made on-site, along with other spirits, including gin, vodka and moonshine, is seeking to annex its 2.84 acres in unincorporated Beaufort County into Bluffton town limits.

Billy Watterson, a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur and CEO of Watterson Brands, said Wednesday he’s lived on Hilton Head Island for a little over a year but didn’t discover Bluffton until he attended 2017’s Christmas Parade in Old Town. The warm reception he received in talking to Old Town residents and business owners alike led him to purchase land at 120 Bluffton Road.

“Everyone’s the mayor of the town,” he said. “The community, the local (business) owners, everyone just felt like a part of Old Town. When I bought the land, I saw it as a gateway into Bluffton.”

Despite the proposed location not sitting on Burnt Church Road, Watterson said when he discovered and drove on the street that he “couldn’t shake the name.”

The distillery would have a walk-in humidor and offer tours, educating customers on whiskey production and the history of Burnt Church Road and Bluffton.

“We’ve actually hired a historian to tie in information about the Episcopalian church,” he said. “It’ll be a walk-through that’ll provide a taste of local history and what it’s like to make whiskey.”

Watterson said he only found out about the annexation possibility after his purchase closed, but he feels its proximity to Old Town makes incorporating 120 Bluffton Road into the town limits a logical fit.

Heather Colin, Bluffton’s director of growth management, said Thursday the proposal is straightforward from an annexation perspective.

“(120 Bluffton Road) is adjacent to town limits and only borders property already within the town,” she said. “The annexation would be 100 percent straightforward.”

The project still has procedural hurdles to overcome after its first workshop hearing at the Nov. 28 Planning Commission. Commission members will review the project again in December, after which they will eventually give the proposal two more hearings. Bluffton Town Council has final approval.

Watterson acknowledged he doesn’t want Burnt Church Distillery to compete with the rum-centric Hilton Head Distillery, saying he plans to make sure his business is “respectful to the industry and the town.”

Nevertheless, Watterson believes the distillery and its products could put Bluffton on the international map.

“This idea is conceived around the Lowcountry, the ‘spirit’ of the Lowcountry,” he said. “Old Town has a vibe and feel that I want (Burnt Church Distillery) to be a part of.”

Assuming the process remains on schedule, Watterson foresees groundbreaking in April 2019 with a target opening in March 2020.

Alec Snyder has been the growth and development reporter at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. He covers Beaufort County and Bluffton government, along with housing affordability throughout the area. Alec is from Philadelphia and an alum of The George Washington University.
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