Appalachian terroir: Eda Rhyne Distilling Company makes distinct Southern amari

Chris Bower is a co-founder and distiller behind Eda Rhyne, an Asheville, North Carolina, maker of regionally distinct amari.
Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Eda Rhyne Distilling Company is named after a ghost as mysterious as some of the ingredients behind its distinct amari. 

Mystery is part of the culture of amari, a wide-ranging group of herbal liqueurs with roots in the Middle Ages. Amari, plural for amaro, means "bitter" in Italian and serves as a digestif for modern cocktail cognoscenti. Distillers often keep the makeup of their bittersweet liqueurs secret, though many include common botanicals such as mint, gentian and elderflower. 

Located just outside the touristy glitz of Biltmore Village in Asheville, North Carolina, Eda Rhyne feels at once like an undiscovered hipster haunt and a shrine to Southern Appalachian medicinal folklore. It's owned by organic farmer Rett Murphy and sci-fi filmmaker turned bar owner Chris Bower.

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Eda Rhyne's core products, Amaro Flora, Appalachian Fernet and the Amaro Oscura, all have a complex flavor built on herbs, many pulled from Appalachian folk medicine. In season, Murphy, Bower and their crew forage for ingredients on Blue Ridge Mountain slopes and in Western North Carolina forests. Some ingredients are grown on Murphy's farm.

Bower is well-versed in mountain lore. His family hails from just one county over, where the liberal bubble of Asheville dissolves and tradition takes over. 

This corner of Appalachia, tamed by Scotch-Irish in the 18th century, was once geographically isolated, a place where locals scratched out an existence with what grew around them, including an abundance of medicinal plants. 

"The thing for me is that mystery was such a rich part of the history of amari making, and quite frankly liquor making in Appalachia in general," Bower said in a 2021 interview. "All of that stuff was super secretive and adds a sense of allure and mystique to the storytelling — and folklore is an essential part of what these things are."

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Forest finds while foraging for ingredients for Eda Rhyne's Amaro Flora and Appalachian Fernet.

That story comes through in the Appalachian Fernet, which is bracingly bitter from dandelion root and pits a dark and brooding earthiness against breezy yet subtle foraged wild mint. Flavors shift in and out of focus.

The Amaro Oscura is made with open-fire-smoked rhubarb root, spicebush berries, cherry bark, spruce and Appalachian flora. Aged for a year in rye whiskey barrels, it's mountain autumn in a dark and bittersweet brew.

While some of Eda Rhyne's ingredients are exotic, including the biblical resin myrrh, pulled from thorny trees that grow in drier climates, most were selected as expressions of Appalachian terroir. Many of them are secret.

"That was always the entirety of it," Murphy said, "whether we were trying to express the bounty of local farmers including myself or the local abundance of the native flora here, one of the most biodiverse temperate regions of the world."

Eda Rhyne distiller and co-founder Rett Murphy samples a newly tapped batch of Amaro Flora.

Murphy agreed to share some of the ingredients of the Amaro Flora, which he said evokes Max Patch, a popular grassy woodland bald in the Western North Carolina wilderness. Like those high open slopes, Amaro Flora is filled with elderflower, wild angelica and rose hips. "It's brighter, floral and a little grassy," he said. 

Eda Rhyne's distillers embrace their place in the natural world while making a liqueur more widely known in Europe. American-made amari is a tiny but growing sector of domestic spirit making, Murphy said. 

"This class of liqueurs hasn't become super common in the Southern United States," he said. "I think the fact that we use the word 'bitter' as a pejorative says a lot about why."

Even if Southern Appalachian people are better known for making moonshine than amari, the region has a long-held tradition of foraging and herbal medicine making. 

"There's not that deep culture of making these liqueurs here, but it's the perfect place to do it, and that's what we're trying to show people," Murphy said.

Though American tastes tend toward vodka, whiskey and the other better-known classes of liquor, Murphy said he and Bower are on a mission to prove the world is full of opportunity for regionally distinct beverages. "Hopefully we're part of some movement to change people's idea about what spirits can be," he said. 

A batch of Appalachian Fernet ages at Eda Rhyne Distillery in Asheville, North Carolina.

Eda Rhyne is at 101 Fairview Road in Asheville, North Carolina. Shop at edarhyne.com.

How to drink amari

Amari are meant to be enjoyed alone as an aperitif or digestif. It's important to explore the flavors first, unadulterated. But if you'd like to mix them in a cocktail, Eda Rhyne has developed several house cocktail recipes.

A note on simple syrup: To make it, stir 1 part white granulated sugar into 1 part water in a small saucepan and dissolve the sugar over medium heat. Let cool. This will keep refrigerated in a glass jar for a month. 

Stiff Tiff recipe

This take on a Toronto softens the edges of bittersweet Appalachian Fernet with the crispness of rye and a dash of sweet simple syrup.

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces Old Overholt Bonded Rye

1 ounce Appalachian Fernet

1/4 ounce simple syrup

Dash of orange bitters

Instructions

Stir in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

Bermuda Triangle Daiquiri recipe

Appalachian Fernet adds an element of mysterious complexity to this otherwise traditional daiquiri.

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces light rum

1/2 ounce Appalachian Fernet

1 ounce lime juice 

1/2 ounce simple syrup

Instructions

Shake with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with lime leaf or lime wheel.

Orange Negroni recipe

Amaro Flora adds an herbaceous, floral undertone to this easy-to-make, lightly bittersweet Negroni.

Ingredients

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce Amaro Flora

1 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth

Instructions

Stir together and add to a cocktail glass with ice. Garnish with an orange peel.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.