The forest has secrets: Asheville's Eda Rhyne Distillery turns flora into unique spirits

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

Plants have secret lives. Some people believe they can communicate with us, if only we'll listen. That's the belief under which Chris Bower, a founder of Eda Rhyne Distillery, operates.

Eda Rhyne, among other liquors including a forthcoming gin and whiskey, makes amari with locally foraged plants.

First, an explainer. Amari is plural for amaro, which literally means "bitter" in Italian. The makeup of the bittersweet liqueurs, sipped as digestifs, is often kept secret but can include botanicals such as mint, gentian and elderflower and a variety of bittering roots and spices. 

Inside the Eda Rhyne distillery.

The ingredients of Eda Rhyne's Amaro Flora and Appalachian Fernet are also kept secret, and Bower will drop precious few hints when questioned. 

Some accuse him of being paranoid. Or worse, they accuse him of concealing need-to-know information. Distilling, it's worth noting, is a highly regulated process from ground to label, thus everything the distillery uses is government-approved for consumption.

"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. "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."

Picking wild mint for fernet.

An ancestral potion

Native plant medicine and Appalachian folklore are deeply intertwined, and Bower's relationship with native botanicals comes from generational knowledge passed down from Appalachian ancestors. 

Those ancestors endeavored to learn the secrets of beneficial plants — what stimulates the liver, what can make a medicinal poultice — then shared that knowledge to those who most wanted to listen. "Then, if you had a knack for it, you were brought on for more education," Bower said. "It's the folk way."

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These days, he said, fewer want to listen. "It's a lot easier to Google something. It's a lot more difficult to seek out relationships with these plants."

The product of the work can be tasted in the bracingly bitter Appalachian Fernet, which pits a dark and brooding earthiness against a mintiness that's far subtler than in some other fernets. It is, in a word, mysterious. It's hard to pin down.

Chris Bower forages for ingredients for Eda Rhyne Distillery.

That's the terroir of Appalachia, where wild mint grows abundantly, Bower said.

"Some are powerful, some are subtle, but I think that's probably one of the biggest things that makes our fernet stand apart from others who might be using dried spearmint or, god forbid, mint concentrate," he said.

From farm and forest to glass

Not everything is foraged. Some ingredients are grown on co-founder and farmer Rett Murphy's land. Others are more exotic, included in the recipe because they help the fernet hew closer to tradition.

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Take myrrh, a resin extracted from thorny trees that grow nowhere near Western North Carolina. Myrrh, the value of which is so ancient as to be biblical, is commonly used in fernet. Though Bower and Murphy looked for local replacements, nothing could match its power and aroma. 

"It's so aromatic and so beautiful that of course it would be considered a highly prized possession in the ancient world and traded because of this," Bower said. "Myrrh only grows in certain regions of the world, and that's probably what fuels its allure and the mystery and mystique around it."

Appalachian Fernet on the shelves at the tasting room at Eda Rhyne Distillery, 101 Fairview Road, suite A.

Ed Rhyne's Amaro Flora is less brooding. It's more flowered valley field than mountain forest floor, with complex floral notes lacing through a pleasantly bitter profile. Again, it's exact ingredients are known only to the distillers, but include elderflower and angelica.

"Wild angelica is really, really delicious," Bower said. "It's powerful stuff, approaching the sacred — this is one of those plants that's been revered and used forever."

Angelica is deeply entrenched in European folklore and spirit-making, but also It also grows abundantly in Western North Carolina.

Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs describes angelica as a key ingredient in Carmelite water, an “elixir for long life” made by 12th century nuns. It also gained a reputation during the bubonic plague when, the book says, an angel appeared in a monk's dreams to tell him angelica could help defeat the pestilence. It became part of "The King Majesty's Excellent Recipe for the Plague," administered twice-daily for relief.

Eda Rhyne's Rider Burton foraging in the woods.

While Bower makes no claims on the medical efficacy of angelica, he does think the fact that it can be foraged sustainably in the Asheville area adds to its magic.  

"I think that's powerful, that process," he said. "I think you can taste that, and I think it's something that comes across when people drink our products. It's not super-refined and it does harken back to folk remedies and folkways and it just tastes more ancient to me and that's what we're going for."

A vodka with distinct flavor

There's also the newly released Lindera, a vodka that gets an infusion of flavor from young spicebush leave and twigs.  

It's no secret that vodka sales far surpass those of any other spirit in the United States. Make a vodka, the owners reasoned, and it could help pay for some of the distillery's pet projects, like the small-batch and smoky Amaro Oscura rabarbaro and the Rustic Nocino made with foraged black walnuts.

Bower was reluctant to jump on the vodka bandwagon but agreed to try an Appalachian take on Żubrówka, a traditional Polish spirit made from aromatic bison grass and rye. 

Rett Murphy at Eda Rhyne distillery in Asheville.

Eda Ryne's is made from corn and infused with spicebush, a traditional mountain shrub with culinary uses. Its bark was also once used as a remedy for typhoid. To add to the allure, the spicebush can only be harvested early in the morning and in the very early spring, according to Bower.

"I'm not sure of the chemical process that's happening, but what we've discovered is that the flavor is completely different," said Bower.

It's had to tell whether Bower is just weaving more magic into the the tale of this already distinct vodka — he tells a good story.

But like the Appalachian moonshine makers who came before him, and European monks who carefully guarded liquor recipes before that, the story is part of the spirit's allure. 

How to taste the spirits

Many of Eda Rhyne's liquors are available through local ABC stores, but the tasting room is the best bet to secure limited run spirits. Plus, you can taste before you buy at the bar. You can try mixed drinks, but sipping the different amari side by side and unadulterated is a treat.

Eda Rhyne also recently launched Amaro Pop, a refreshing sparkling spritzer made with amaro, grapefruit and honey, sold in cans.

A distinct American-style gin and a very special whiskey will launch soon. Details on that are forthcoming.

To learn more about the operation and products at Eda Rhyne, visit www.edarhyne.com, or visit the tasting room at 101 Fairview Road Suite A, Wednesday-Saturday, 3-8 p.m.


Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me:  mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

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