Spirit forward


November 30, 2023

Oaklore Distilling Co. readies for growth — while keeping community top of mind.  

by Cathy Martin 

Monks have produced mead, ale, grappa and other alcoholic spirits for centuries. So it should come as no surprise that a Lutheran minister (and his good buddy) is making whiskey in Matthews.

Matt Simpkins, co-pastor at Cross & Crown Lutheran Church, and his business partners Thomas Bogan and Travis Masters opened Oaklore Distilling Co. in September 2022 at the bustling intersection of Monroe Road and Matthews Township Parkway. The distillery makes and sells bourbon, rye, gin, vodka and rum out of the tiny 1,000-square-foot building that once housed a landscaping business.

But Oaklore’s story began years earlier. When I sat down with Matt and Tom in late September — almost a year to the day since they opened their doors — two themes came up repeatedly: friendship and community. 

First, the friendship. Matt and Tom met six years ago at their kids’ bus stop in Matthews and discovered a shared interest in whiskey. The whiskey-making started as a hobby: They purchased pre-made distillate from local ABC stores (it’s illegal to make your own whiskey without a permit in North Carolina) and began experimenting.

“We figured out what our recipe was, what we really enjoyed,” says Tom, a former contractor with a biostatistics degree from UNC Chapel Hill who had previously dabbled with homebrewing beer. 

Oaklore co-founders Matt Simpkins, left, and Thomas Bogan

Around this time, Charlie Nelson, the co-founder of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, Tenn., was in the area showcasing some of his products. Matt and Tom went to meet him, and began peppering him with questions. Nelson, whose company was being acquired by Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company, invited the duo to meet his brother and business partner, Andy Nelson. Introductions to other heavyweights in the distilling world followed, including James Beard Award finalist Drew Kulsveen of Willett Distillery and John Hargrove of Bardstown Bourbon Co. in Kentucky.

“We started meeting all these people that had this incredible history in the industry,” Matt says. “And one of the things that we realized was that they were interested in helping us.”

Maybe it was Covid, Matt ponders, and the unexpected downtime that came when the world shut down. “I remember making a call, and I said, ‘We will all wear hazmat suits. What do you want us to do? We just need to sit down with you and learn,’” he recalls.  

“They told us everything. They took us back behind the scenes. … That cut years off our learning time.” 

A favorable environment

The partners searched across Charlotte for a location for their distillery but were ultimately drawn back to Matthews, where they worked and raised their families.

“This has always been about community,” says Matt, a Nashville native who arrived in Charlotte in 1989 when his father, a pilot for Piedmont Airlines, moved here for work. “It guides what we do — it’s about story,” he says. It’s at the heart of the business, he says — and it inspired the name. “Those oak staves,” he explains, “all of those barrels are made of oak. Every one of those trees has a story that it tells,” Matt says. “We also think that when you gather around and you have a drink with folks and you get to know them, your collective story is better than your singular story.”

Tom’s construction experience was invaluable when it was time to upfit the small wooden structure sitting on a half-acre less than a mile from downtown Matthews. The partners spent eight months converting the space to a tasting room and retail space with a 250-square-foot distillery. Though the building is small, there’s ample outdoor seating, including a large outdoor fireplace for cooler nights.

Couples and families, even members of Matt’s congregation, come to Oaklore to unwind after work and on weekends. There’s a resident food truck, and the tiny bar offers whiskey flights; batched cocktails with names like Pomegranate Punch and the Oak Fashioned; and a handful of made-to-order cocktails. Oaklore is child- and dog-friendly, with slushies, sodas and other nonalcoholic options available. “It’s more of a mature atmosphere,” Tom says. “It’s not a nightlife, college scene.”

Before long, the partners realized they were already outgrowing their new space. A slate of changes to state laws regulating the craft-distilling industry boosted business. In 2020, North Carolina began allowing distilleries to sell unlimited bottles on-site. (The previous law allowed only five bottles per person per year.) For the first time, Sunday sales were allowed, and distilleries could serve mixed drinks by the glass.

Overnight, the idea of operating a distillery changed from a hobby to a viable business opportunity. “You were able to market yourself and be able to sell product and make money in order to build and grow,” Tom says.

This changing environment drew Jack Shute, a 20-year veteran of the spirits industry, to the state in 2021. Spying opportunity amid the rapidly changing industry, Shute had plans to start his own whiskey brand in the state. After a mutual friend introduced him to Tom, they soon realized their skills and experience complemented each other. Jack joined Oaklore earlier this year as head of sales and commercial operations.

“The culture that these guys have built in such a young company, and the team around them [is remarkable],” Jack says. They are easygoing, but sharp.”

A growing vision

With growth in mind, the partners — Derrick Land and Sarper Beyazyurek round out the ownership team — have acquired another 3 acres adjacent to the existing location. 

Last month, Oaklore’s Four Grain Bourbon and North Carolina Straight Rye Whiskey — made with North Carolina grains — hit shelves in select ABC stores in Mecklenburg, Union, Wake and Cumberland counties. The products will be available statewide in 2024. Online ordering from Oaklore’s website is scheduled to begin this month. 

Plans are also underway for a much larger facility playfully called Whiskey Wonderland, with more indoor and outdoor space, a courtyard, and expanded food and retail offerings — perhaps even a gravity-powered track for rolling barrels similar to Woodford Reserve’s at its Kentucky distillery. The larger space will allow Oaklore to accommodate more guests but also to consolidate production in one place. (Currently, rum gin and vodka are handcrafted in the Matthews distillery. Aged whiskies are created on sister stills in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, then processed in Matthews.)

Giving back

While the partners have big plans for expansion, a community focus is still at the heart of the business. About three times a year, Oaklore invites a local nonprofit to select their own single barrel bourbon as part of its Angel Barrel program. Proceeds from sales go back to the organization.

“We said early on we wanted to be about the community, and we wanted to create something where we could interact specifically with particular organizations in the area that do great things,” Matt says.  

The first beneficiary was the Matthews Mavericks, a soccer program that covers registration, training and uniform costs for kids who can’t otherwise afford to play. Other nonprofit partners have included Second Harvest Food Bank and Autism Strong.

“The vision continues to expand,” Matt says. “It is daunting, it is overwhelming, it brings a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun. As we continue to see that vision grow, things keep falling into place. The stars keep aligning — it’s wild how it works.”  SP

Oaklore Distilling is at 11136 Monroe Rd. in Matthews. oakloredistilling.com
Our guide to MoRa has more places to visit nearby.

photographs coutresy Oaklore Distilling Co.

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