Off Highway 74 in Belmont, past a neighborhood of small houses and down a winding blacktop road, sits a boxy brick warehouse overlooking the slow-moving Catawba River. Approach the plain metal door beneath the wooden “Muddy River” sign, and you might just be knocked off your feet by the funky sweet smell of fermenting cane sugar.
Behind that door lies the industrial glory of North Carolina’s oldest rum distillery since the days of Prohibition.
In the distilling room next to the steampunk-looking evaporating column, PCG Member Caroline Delaney’s slight build and shy smile might lull you into thinking she’s just the office manager around here. After all, she was firmly settled into a career as an accountant when husband Rob decided to license his hobby into a legal distillery. “It was going to be his thing,” she recalls. “That’s why we didn’t really talk about it when we got married…and then I got dragged into it.”
Muddy River grew from a hobby of Rob Delaney, who started distilling while working full-time in construction. When Caroline married him in 2012, it was still just his hobby. Three years later, it’s a growing business and a more than full-time job for both of them.
Today, when she leaps to her feet to check the status of the clear liquid boiling up through a half dozen portholes in the shining steel column, there’s no “dragged” about it. To listen to her and Rob discuss the cuts and numbers determining the quality of their product, it’s clear Caroline has developed a few other skills along the way.
She wears about a dozen hats at the business, from distiller to marketing manager to custodian. And though she demurs, Rob insists it’s Caroline’s palate that creates the superior flavors in their line of five small-batch rums.
Outside of distilling days, most of her energy goes to getting Muddy River rums on as many shelves as possible at restaurants and ABC stores around the state. In both areas, she is largely self-taught. “I don’t know how people did it before Google Maps,” she laughs, “Because I would just go into a city I don’t know and Google restaurants. I would look for places that use local food or local beer.”
Joining the Piedmont Culinary Guild was a logical extension of her efforts to showcase their locally-brewed spirits. Small batch rums like their flagship Queen Charlotte Reserve command higher prices than the big names, but Caroline knows there’s a market for it. “If you just say ‘North Carolina’ next to it, people want that and they want to try it.”
That certainly got the attention of PCG member Luca Annunziata and his wife Jessica of Passion8 in Charlotte, but it was more than the local label that drew them together. “I saw the passion that comes from the heart,” Luca says, “Just like Jessica and me.”
In October, the two “mom and pop” businesses collaborated on a four-course dinner pairing Muddy River cocktails with Luca’s plates.
“When I did that menu, I really had to be careful to not overpower the rum,” Luca says, “But to balance it with savory and acidity to bring out the rum. With mass production rums, you don’t get that intensity of flavor.”
Sorry to say it Caroline, but Luca agrees with your husband when it comes to the secret behind Muddy River’s well-earned success. “The flavor the quality, the taste, it’s all her.”
Like that winding Belmont road, life has led her to discover unexpected – and highly acclaimed – talents.
Profile written by Alison Leininger
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