Walk into the newest business in downtown Comer, a plain white brick building, and you’re enveloped in scents of warm grain, earthy oak, and a hint of a floral garden. It’s the smell of Soldier of the Sea Distillery, a passion project of the two owners, Mark Davis and Jennifer Berry who cut the red ribbon and opened to the public in late January.
The small batch distillery is an homage to Davis’s passion for whiskey making, his military service, and Berry’s two decades as a research professional for the University of Georgia Bee Program.
Davis, 66, enlisted in the Marines at 17 and traveled the world as “a soldier of the sea,” – that’s the historic title given to the Continental Marines in 1775. In between re-enlisting and two tours in Vietnam and Desert Storm, Davis also graduated from the UGA College of Agriculture. After he completed his military service, he worked for a pharmaceutical company and learned fractional distillation as part of the manufacturing process. That skill wedded to his interests in agriculture and fine whiskey led to years of exploring craft spirits as a hobby.
Davis’s other hobbies, soap making and blacksmithing, led him to the Comer Farmers’ Market in 2012 where he met Berry, who was a fan of his soaps, and him.
As the Apicultural Research Professional and Lab Manager for the University of Georgia Bee Program, Berry’s research is focused on improving honeybee health and finding the best plants to attract a diversity of pollinators. It was Berry who suggested adding honey when Davis began experimenting with whiskey flavors. The fermentation process removes the sugar from the whiskey but leaves the distinct flavor of each type of honey.
“You don’t taste the sweetness, but you get the floral essence of it,” she explains. “So, if it’s made from a certain type of honey… you can smell the actual sourwood or Tupelo or tulip poplar or wildflower. Each type of honey brings a unique experience to the whiskey.”
Besides their use of Georgia honey, Davis and Berry also incorporate organic corn from Madison County in Moon Nectar, their very first whiskey. Sea Duty is a corn and barley whiskey. Spirit Tree is a wheated bourbon with a hint of spice from tree honey. All three are 90 proof.
Visitors to the distillery can try each whiskey straight, but the Hive pub is now open next door and features traditional cocktails like Old Fashioneds, Mules, and Manhattens, as well as a signature honey whiskey cocktail called The Orchard. Tastings are $6 for three samples and $2 for single samples. The bottles sell for $40 and $60.
The Comer Chamber of Commerce has welcomed Davis and Berry’s venture, and the pub has already become the place to meet the neighbors during weekend tasting hours, Thursdays through Saturdays from 4 to 8 p.m. They have recently added an outdoor patio.
The couple is looking forward to sharing with their patrons the history and production processes of each of their craft whiskeys, and how they differ from one another. They plan to develop new whiskeys and cocktails with ingredients that benefit local agriculture and apiculture.
“We want to stay small, but very high quality,” Davis says.
Michelle Vetter is a freelance writer who lives in Oconee County.