DURHAM – Next Century Spirits, the Durham-based company bringing technology that slashes time to produce whiskeys, rum, and other spirits, is looking for larger production facilities, says CEO Scott Bolin.
The 20-employee company that recently closed a $6 million C round from a number of Triangle investment entities, has outgrown its current facility, Bolin said in an exclusive interview with WRAL TechWire. “We’re hiring. We’re looking at beefing up our production and R&D staff.”
“It’s been a weird year,” Bolin said. For a time, the company pivoted from producing spirits to making hand sanitizer. “We saw a real need. We’re still making a little sanitizer, but we’re mostly back to whiskey.”
The company, founded in 2018, raised $3.6 million from Blue Hill Group in Chapel Hill that year. It gained Seagram heir Matthew Bronfman, who has an interest in the Blue Hill Group, as chair in the process. The Blue Hill Group also led the most recent round. “Bronfman’s family connections in the spirits industry go back three generations,” Bolin said. “It’s led to some conversations. He has a big Rolodex.”
Bolin, a serial entrepreneur, taught English four years before going to business school and earning an MBA at North Carolina State University then changing gears. He sees similarities to teaching, however.
”A lot of what I do is getting people from point A to Point B by the end of class,” he explained.
”Now I’m an addict (to entrepreneurship) and my sweet spot is bringing new products to market. ”
Bolin previously led Tethis, a company developing a disruptive technology for the diaper industry. At Tethis, discussions of other potential uses for the spongy material it developed led to the company splitting in two. Bolin became CEO of Anavo Technologies, which was formed to explore other technologies. Next Century Spirits was its first spinout.
The idea actually originated with a Tethis advisor, Bolin said. He was interested in whiskey, bourbon, and alcohol. Bolin co-founded the company with Joel Pawlak, an NC State University Associate Professor of Forest Biomaterials.
Traditional distilling is both time-consuming and requires using a lot of oak wood, often killing 100-year-old trees to make spirit aging barrels. In many cases, virgin barrels are required by law. In addition to an unsustainable use of wood, the traditional aging process requires storage space and leads to evaporation of some of the products, which cuts into profits. “It’s a complex industry,” Bolin said.
The Next Century Spirits technology can add oak-aging qualities to spirits in less than a day via a patented process. “We like to call it a filtering and finishing technology,” Bolin said. “We use wood chips created for the wine industry.” The process not only saves time, it uses far less wood than traditional methods.
The company’s disruptive technology is explained in a FAQ on its website. It says, “We can maximize the retention of wood components such as vanillin, syringaldehyde, cinnemaldehyde, and whiskey lactones. These create flavors of vanilla, toasted oak, cinnamon, coconut.
“During the natural reaction phases of our process, we can help push the reaction of harsh, carboxylic acids to their more desirable esterified forms, creating fruity and aromatic notes of apple, pear, and pineapple, among others. During the filtration phase of the process, we help reduce undesirable components such as methanol, isopropanol, and sulfuric compounds, which can create off-flavors in the distillate and are considered generally unhealthy.”
The company sells the use of its technology to industry clients. It’s a technology partner to major operators in the distilled spirits market. Using state-of-the-art systems, the company produces spirits for a variety of beverage products, from craft brands to large, bulk blends.
It also makes a number of its own brands. Most recently, its rum won Best in Category in the prestigious American Spirits Institute competition, beating out 116 other entries. “We’ve won 20 metals, but this was the first Best in Category,” Bolin said.
Another of its brands, which it co-owns with hip hop, rap and southern rock performer Yelawolf, Creek Water, a 100-proof whiskey, has also won a number of awards. Yelawolf, whose real name is Michael Wayne Atha, is very entrepreneurial, Bolin said. “He also owns a clothing store. He has a large fan base. He’s the largest shareholder and promotes it. He was in on the development of flavors and design. He’s a great partner.”
It sells for $24.99 and is available in ABC stores. “A new cinnamon-flavored version will be coming out,” Bolin said.
Bolin thinks more entertainers will invest in entrepreneurial ventures. “After George Clooney sold his tequila brand for $1 billion in 2018, I think we’ll see more of it going forward”
He adds that the mostly local investors in his startups, including university angel groups, have been willing to fund disruptive technologies, taking on traditional industries like diapers and whiskey. “It’s also great when they want to be helpful as well as write you a check.”
Now, Bolin noted, “We’re looking at our strategy in a post-COVID world. It’s going to be a big year as we revamp with travel restrictions, a large number of people coming on board and everything else. We’ve been really fortunate. There are a lot of really smart talented people in the Triangle.”