Tucked away in the south end of Greensboro on West Lewis Street, you’ll find some of the finest liquor made completely from scratch by Bill and Andrew Norman at Fainting Goat Spirits. In a former blacksmith shop, this father-son duo is creating award-winning gin, vodka, rye whiskey, and bourbon that’s meant for sipping, definitely not mixing. It’s just too good for the latter. Now, before you go take our word for it, we want to share an interview we did with Bill during a trip to Greensboro. Inside his shop, we learned more about Fainting Goat, life before this adventure, and more.
We also included Fainting Goat Spirits in our guide to a weekend in Greensboro!
Bill Norman of Fainting Goat Spirits
This interview with Bill Norman is part of our series featuring the People of NC. Here, we’ve spotlighted folks from various walks of life, including BBQ restauranteur Jerry Stephenson, travel writer Jason Frye, and more. Special thanks to Bill for inviting us as he battled a mash mess (you’ll see in a minute), and to the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for setting up this interview with Bill.
Fainting Goat Spirits
Carl Hedinger: Can you tell us a little bit about your spirits?
Bill Norman: We did vodka really just to keep our doors open. We are bourbon drinkers, so our focus is really on dark liquor, bourbon, rye, whiskey, but now that the vodka has won so many awards, we’ve continued to keep it in our portfolio. Originally that was not our intention, but this year, the American Craft Spirits Association judged it as the top hand-crafted vodka in the country.
BN: Cigar and Spirits Magazine named our gins one of the “50 Best Gins” and it tied with number two with Hendrick’s as one of the best gins in the world. And all this was in our first two years of business. We are bourbon drinkers, but even our clear liquors are looked at as a bourbon drinker would look at them. I want to be able to pour them in a glass and sip on them just like you would on a whiskey. Every liquor is a unique blend all on its own, not just an ingredient. We want our liquors to be sipped and enjoyed just as they are.
“The Ritual of Drinking”
BN: It’s the ritual of drinking that is coming back. It’s not about just getting hammered. Things like gin, vodka, and whiskey are a part of that ritual. Bourbon and rye whiskey are kind of old school and you’re going to drink them like they are. However, the shaking, stirring, and glass clinking is all that ritual that is starting to come back.
CH: Are you from North Carolina?
BN: I’m originally from Texas. During the first 18 years of my career, I was an executive chef after going to school at the Culinary Institute at Hyde Park. Then I moved to North Carolina and started working for a company called Aramark. About 15 years ago, on a family vacation, we walked into our first distillery in Seattle. I immediately felt like I was in a big kitchen. My wife and I said, “We’re going to make vodka one day (we were vodka drinkers at the time).”
BN: Tiny Cat is what we called our children when they were small. That’s where the name of our Vodka comes from. We never wanted to do it on this large of a scale, but then about eight years ago, Andrew, our son, had graduated from college and came to us wanting to open the distillery. So that’s when we really began to look into it. Andrew does all of the distilling. My background as a chef is to come in and make the mash every day, and it’s just like making 300 gallons of gravy. Andrew is the one who really has the palate for alcohol. He has the knowledge of cocktails and what we really want our brand to taste like.
You can learn more about Bill, Andrew, and the rest of the family on Fainting Goat’s website.
CH: What’s been your biggest challenge getting started?
BN: Like any small business, cash flow is our biggest challenge. Thankfully, we have an already established business that is generating revenue (Kneaded Energy), which allows us the luxury to do what we need to do. To make good brown liquor you need to leave it in barrels for several years, so having this second business really helps. The other hurdle would be all of the government applications and paperwork that we needed to become legal. The City of Greensboro and Guilford County were absolutely tremendous in helping us do what we needed to do so we could open up. The State and the Federal level were not purposefully burdensome, but it is complicated to become an actual distiller.
BN: That’s why there are DSP and then there are people who are importers. Many distillers are not making their own product, but instead bringing in already made alcohol and then mixing it and bottling it. We bring everything in from grain all the way to the glass. The grain (rye, wheat, corn, and barley) is all grown on one farm here in Marshville, North Carolina outside of Charlotte. We use about 600 pounds of grain a day, or 14,000 pounds a month from that one farm. You can see the open-top fermentation as you walk in. We grind the grain down to flour, we talk to it, we feed it. And then when it goes in the still, Andrew makes sure it gets what it needs to become an excellent product.
Why North Carolina?
CH: So what brought you to North Carolina?
BN: When I graduated from school, I had a couple of options for jobs. One was in New Orleans and one was here in Greensboro. When I asked them in New Orleans where I should be looking to live with my family, they told me to go across the border to Mississippi. To me, that made no sense. I didn’t want to live in another state than where I would be working. So, North Carolina became our home. It has always felt like home. I’m from Texas and my wife is from Kansas, so we love the southern part of the US. And North Carolina has such a rich history and culture. Our massage therapy business has been very involved in the community, so there has never been a thought that we wouldn’t stay here. There’s not any place out there that I think I would rather live.
Favorite Places to Visit in North Carolina
CH: Outside of Greensboro, do you have a favorite part of North Carolina that you like to visit?
BN: All the way on either end. We like to go to the beach and we like to go to the mountains. Both involve water, but it’s a completely different feeling. In the mountains, we try to get near a stream, so you feel the water running in a calming way. But when you get to the ocean and you feel the weight and heaviness of the waves and sound and low rumble that’s always going on. But as foodies, we always make sure we hit Raleigh and Charlotte.
Advice for Aspiring Distillers
CH: If someone wants todo what you’re doing, what kind of advice would give them?
BN: I’d say this for any business, not just distilling, just know that you are not going to generate an income for three or four years. My wife and I have written a couple of books on business and that’s one of the things we want people to really understand. People start a business and then in two months are saying, “I’m losing money!” Of course you are. That’s the nature of the business. And, you have to love what you’re doing. We talk to people all the time who are looking to start something and they aren’t jazzed about it in the beginning stage. And that’s the stage you need to be most excited about.
Bill and Shelley Johnson-Norman’s The Enviable Lifestyle touches upon how one can build a service-oriented business, based on their experiences running a massage therapy practice.
BN: Once you start, you’re burdened with the everyday tasks. Like right now, I’m covered with mash and water. Every once in a while, those everyday tasks beat you down, so you have to really love what you’re doing to keep going. What we’re doing, you get an instant feedback on. You get that gratitude immediately. The thing that excites us more than anything is when people recognize our product from outside of here. Our favorite customer is someone who comes in here and says, “I’m not really a gin drinker.” Because that’s the person who is going to walk away with two or three bottles of gin when they leave because it is just that good.
His Proudest Achievements
CH: What is the creation you are the most proud of?
BN: First off, it would be both my children. Just like children, it’s hard to have a favorite. So in each of those products, there’s something that is so unique about them that makes me incredibly proud. Add on that it’s my son who is creating them, really makes me proud. But if I had to choose one, I would say the gin. That’s the one that I think people would really be blown away by. But, as bourbon drinkers, we are really excited for our bourbon that is still aging.
For me, there are two takeaways from this interview. Number one: it’s really fun to chat with someone while being surrounded by so much fine booze. And secondly, people like Bill continue to convince me that starting and running one’s own business is the ride of a lifetime. Sure, it’s tough and uncertain, but isn’t everything in life? Why not do what you love while you’re at it?
One last thing: If you’re familiar with Fainting Goat Spirits, which route would you go: Tiny Cat Vodka, Emulsion Gin, or C.B Fisher’s Whiskey? Tell us what you like in the comments section and we’ll give you our answer!