While on a 2017 trip to Spain with fellow Alabamians, Austin Creel noticed how people would react when he’d mention his home state. Inevitably, somebody would break into the song, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“Man, people’s eyes would just light up,” recalls Creel, whose Alabama roots run six generations deep. “Me and my Bama buddies almost became mini celebrities. Everywhere we went, they would put on ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and make us sing it or dance to it. I had so much pride in being from Alabama.”
So, when Creel decided to get into the small-batch liquor business in 2021, he knew exactly what to name it: Sweet Home Spirits. Based in Leeds, it joins a dozen or so distilling companies that have opened in the Yellowhammer State within the last 15 years.
Sweet Home’s portfolio includes three variations on traditional corn-and-grain whiskey, a vodka, limoncello liqueur, and a modest-strength moonshine flavored with honey from the Bald Rock Bees apiary in Moody.
Its signature label is currently called Sweet Home Divided, a play on the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry. It’s made mostly from corn grown in Hamilton (68 percent of the base grain), along with malted rye (21 percent), and malted barley (11 percent).
Plans to start sourcing from Old South Malts in Cullman, which uses Alabama-grown grain, will bring patriotic changes to the signature whiskey, Creel says. The distiller will make it with red, white, and blue corns, and the whiskey’s name will change to Sweet Home United.
Currently available in Alabama and Georgia, Sweet Home’s modestly-priced whiskeys and vodka are sold in some 75 ABC stores statewide, and roughly 60 privately-owned package stores. Bottles also can be purchased at the distillery and tasting room; the Honey Shine is only available there.
“They’re great in cocktails,” Creel says of his liquors. “And you’re not paying an arm and a leg for it.”
The tasting room, open weekends from 2 p.m.-9 p.m., offers cocktails. Creel, a songwriter, also hosts performances by singer-songwriters on Sundays.
Creel was a Domino’s franchisee before life events brought him back to his hometown in Hamilton. Later seeking a new business opportunity, he decided to produce liquor and liqueurs.
Creel’s company contracts with an out-of-state distillery for its all-corn vodka and its standard whiskey. Some is infused with cinnamon for the Campfire Whiskey.
The whiskeys are aged for one year in charred American oak barrels, with added French oak chips. The process is designed to speed the infusion of flavors from the wood – vanilla, roasted nut, caramel – into the whiskey, which traditionally is aged in wooden barrels for at least two years and sometimes a decade or more.
Creel says he is working toward contracting with an Alabama-based distiller to make his rebranded Sweet Home United. That, using grains from the Cullman malt house, and in-state suppliers for his bottles and other packaging will build United’s bona fides as an Alabama whiskey.
Sweet Home received its distilling license about four months ago, allowing the company to make the Honey Moonshine on a small still Creel installed at the Leeds facility.
It’s part of a modest-growth plan focused on refining the product line and expanding sales territory over the next couple of years. One benchmark is to start aging all of its whiskeys in-house.
“We’re slow-rolling this,” Creel says. “I’m trying to keep it sustainable and let it grow to my liking. I don’t want to get crazy; We have six products. That’s probably already crazy enough.”
Sweet Home Spirits
Here is how Creel describes his current lineup:
Sweet Home Whiskey – 75% sweet corn, 21% rye, 4 % malted barley; 45 percent alcohol (90 proof). Tasting Notes: Clove and vanilla, with hints of maple syrup, spice, earth, and smoke, plus a short and snappy finish.
Sweet Home Vodka – 100% sweet corn; 40 percent alcohol (80 proof). Tasting Notes: Faint floral and sweet notes. Soothing, buttery mouthfeel and a perfectly timed finish.
Sweet Home Divided Bourbon — 21% rye, 11 % malted barley, 68% corn; 42 percent alcohol (84 proof). Tasting Notes: Charred pecans, with hints of maple syrup, spice, earth, and smoke.
Campfire whiskey – 21% rye, 4 % malted barley, 75% corn; 35 percent alcohol (70 proof). Cinnamon infused. Tasting Notes: The nose is rich with cinnamon. The flavor has an earthy spice from the rye. The finish brings the cinnamon flavor home with little to no burn involved.
Limoncello — 100% sweet corn, flavored with lemon zest; 32 percent alcohol (64 proof). Tasting Notes: Smooth liquor is enhanced with natural lemon zest and light sugar. Tart to the taste and an easy finish to create an enjoyable aperitif.
Sweet Home Honey Shine – 5% local honey, 95% corn; 22 percent alcohol (44 proof); The limited-edition honey-flavored moonshine is distilled in Leeds and available exclusively at the tasting room.