In any endeavor, there are those who produce and those who craft. The factory worker pulls levers and assembles pieces but holds no more pride of ownership in one widget than they do the last. It’s a job at its best, and a chore at its worse.
But to craft is to revel in every detail of the act of creation. It is to select each ingredient in a dish, every stitch in a garment, every bolt in a machine with the utmost care and to assemble them with love and pride. There’s a reason arts and crafts get lumped together so often – the line between them is indistinct, if it exists at all.
Meet one of the makers…
LOCAL SINCE 2016
PETER THOMPSON IS THE EXECUTIVE DISTILLER AT HILTON HEAD DISTILLERY. HE’S ALSO A HEALTH NUT. HE HASN’T EATEN FAST FOOD IN MORE THAN A DECADE AND HIS LAST SODA WAS AT AGE 10. HE HAS AN INCREDIBLY HIGH TOLERANCE FOR ALCOHOL. NEVER GO OUT DRINKING WITH HIM.
This local distiller is always in good spirits.
Whether he’s cooking up one of his famous dishes made from wild game he hunted himself or meticulously taste-testing the latest batch of spirits for Hilton Head Distillery, there’s one inescapable fact about Peter Thompson that defines the experience.
“I don’t like cutting corners,” he said. “I’m programmed one way, and that’s to do it the right way.”
That’s evident in every sip of the distillery’s full line, crafted under his care as executive distiller. The effervescent purity of Aermoor Vodka, the creaminess of Two Traditions Dark 23 Rum, it all comes from his distinct palate, honed by years of experience. Even the robust coffee flavor of Mountain Peak Espresso Rum bears his mark, despite the fact that Thompson hates coffee.
While he’s not naturally a coffee drinker, he soldiered through — studying the best local coffee he could find.
“I went and spent $20 at a local coffee shop. That was tough,” he said with a laugh. “I often have a hard time with coffee because I pick up notes of burnt toast. But once I had higher quality coffee and a good understanding of my palate I could start adjusting and tweaking the coffee notes.”
Those adjustments and tweaks are every bit of his process as much as tasting and sampling. Even when running a new batch of vodka, a process which can take upwards of 24 hours, Thompson doesn’t stop refining for the entire duration.
“I’ve gotten it down to where I can up the still and know I have half hour here, an hour there, but for the most part I’m going up to it constantly,” he said. “I have to know we have the best liquor possible coming out, so I’m constantly checking it, messing with it, checking valves, water inputs, steam outputs…”
It’s a pursuit of purity reflected in his choice for favorite offering at the distillery – the white rum. “I’m a straight purist. I don’t care for flavorings or colors, I’m all about the spirit by itself. I’ve never been into cocktails,” he said. “The people who made that spirit created it that way and they want you to drink it that way.”
The white rum may be his favorite for now, but new lines coming out of the distillery might just change that. “I’ve missed making whiskey,” he said. “It’s probably the hardest spirit to make.” Fortunately, Hilton Head Distillery has a whiskey in the works, with plans to begin aging in the next year. It’s a throwback to Thompson’s time spent at Dark Corner Distillery, crafting whiskey with renowned distiller Paul Fulmer. This background in whiskey was then informed by three months of training in rum distillation in the Cayman Islands (“By the end of it I was trying to get them to stay a little bit longer,” he laughed).
“Everybody has their own style with how they distill, especially with small batch. I kept my own whiskey-style palate, so I tend to pull out more than a traditional rum guy would to make a more robust spirit.”
His well-trained palate has helped create a truly unique line of craft spirits, but it’s his drive to never cut corners that has helped elevate Hilton Head Distillery to prominence.