Creativity Is Career Cornerstone for John Wilcox of Greenville’s Dark Corner Distillery

by Myscha Theirault

With a fine arts degree in painting and sculpture from the University of Alaska in Anchorage and a strong interest in theater, you could say that creativity is in John Wilcox’s blood. Fortunately for our taste buds, he decided to put that creativity to use at the Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville, South Carolina. As a full-time distiller, he has a unique perspective on the behind-the-scenes elements the rest of us don’t see when we’re standing in front of the tasting counter.

John has been with Dark Corner since the beginning, which is interesting because he was just beginning his distilling career at the time as well. Wilcox acknowledges his experience was limited, admitting “I had never worked with a still before, but I had some experience working as an apprentice at the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna, Alaska.” Apparently, his hard work and determination paid off, because Dark Corner is now just over two years old with more than twenty national and international awards under its product belt.

The diversity of the product line doesn’t hurt either. This small South Carolina spirit producer boasts a range of craft offerings from full-on whiskeys to flavored moonshines and even absinthe. The most unique product that caught my eye when I visited Dark Corner to speak with John however was the gin he developed with an Asian-inspired flavor palette. Anybody who can work Thai ingredients into a gin that tastes like a winner gets a gold medal for creativity in my book.

Since John happened to have some extra time when I stopped by, I was able to pick his brain a bit about the production of craft spirits and his day-to-day experiences as a distiller. Here’s how the conversation went down.

MT:  What creative aspects of distilling do you think drew you from your work in fine arts to spend your time creating craft spirits? 

JW:  The appeal of art to me is its cross-disciplinary potential. Art is more than the act of making a mark, or forging steel into form. Our work at Dark Corner is rooted in folk art. 

MT: Why do you think Dark Corner’s particular spirits well so well in Greenville? Is it the southern heritage perhaps, or the walkability of the downtown area where the tasting room is located?

JW:  Our local success is really due to early adoption by craft cocktail bartenders in the greater Greenville area. Support from farm-to-table restaurants, and progressive venues like American Grocery and the Owl, help rally the interest of foodies.  We’re conveniently located on Main St, directly across from the Hyatt. There's a lot of foot traffic in this area, and we attract a large number of tourists visiting the city, or business travelers in town for work or a convention. This large consumer base from outside Greenville has helped spread the word about our brand internationally.

MT:  Can you describe the term angel’s share as it applies to the brewing and aging of spirits?

JW:  The angel's share is the amount of spirit that evaporates during the aging process in a barrel. The aging environment has an effect on the amount lost every year, but the average loss is about 4-6%. This loss compounds with every passing year, and contributes to the increased cost of older whiskeys. Old-world superstition coined the term, when distillers believed that angels took a barrel tax, depleting the barrels bit by bit every year.

MT:  Dark Corner Distillery has some unusual flavors compared to other brands, including some Asian-inspired flavors and a butterscotch moonshine that’s fab over ice. What inspired you to incorporate this diversity into the product line? 

JW:  I believe in the mantra "beer is food." If whiskey is derived from beer, then whiskey is an extension of this mantra. The craft beer movement has been closely married to the culinary industry, particularly in recent years. Food pairings with beer and/or spirits spark a unique interplay that helps push the boundaries of both industries.

MT:  Can you share with Shakestir readers your funniest brewing mishap and how it all worked out?

JW:  When we bought our first drum pump, I wasn't aware of how powerful it was. I was in the middle of loading the still with a strip charge, when I let go of the hose for a second. Before I knew it, I was getting a thorough spray down. Not a great way to start the day. I reeked of alcohol all day long - a good reminder not to multi-task when using the drum pump!

It’s clear that Wilcox doesn’t leave his arts training at the door when he comes in to focus on his distilling work every day. A fact that was evident in his parting piece of advice, “I trust my gut. There's a sense of alchemy in this craft. Inspiration comes in a flash. The creative process isn't scientifically rigid. When inspiration hits, sometimes the best thing to do is run with it. Some of the best gems are those that were sparked by impulse.” Well said, buddy. Well said.