Exploring the depths of the unknown drives Tim Ferris, founder of Defiant Whisky. Whether he’s discovering new ways to produce whiskey or deep-sea salvage diving in international waters, he is constantly striving to conquer uncharted territory.
“On my progression of finding out what I want to do when I grow up, I answered that question, up until this point, by diving,” says Ferris.
He now splits his time between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the darkest oceans in a quest for balance. Some days he finds it in a whiskey glass, and other times it is hidden deep underwater.
Ferris leads the team at Defiant Marine, a commercial diving business he founded in 2010. He and his crew travel as far away as Egypt and as close to home as the New York City subway to respond to underwater emergencies.
“It’s a pretty intense field that not a lot of people even know exists, but it’s a pretty vital part to keeping oil flowing and ships moving and harbors unobstructed,” explains Ferris.
He says he tests his strengths and weaknesses every time he dives. His motivation to take risks and surpass excellence is equally apparent in his whiskey.
He founded Defiant Whisky (which is produced in Bostic in Rutherford County, by Blue Ridge Distilling Co.) the same year as his diving business, and has split his time between the two endeavors ever since.
He traces the inspiration for his distillery back to childhood. He remembers watching the army surgeons on the 1972-1983 TV show M*A*S*H mix up cocktails from their homemade still inside their tent. That image stuck with him, and he began tinkering with his own still in his garage around the same time Defiant Marine was becoming profitable.
“I had plenty of time in between international salvage jobs, and one day it hit and I just said, ‘I’m going to build a distillery.’”
He expanded the business from an at-home hobby to a professional distillery in just over two years. The first batch hit the shelves in late 2012.
Like its name suggests, Defiant doesn’t follow the rules. Conventional wisdom imparts that the longer whiskey ages in an oak barrel, the richer the flavor; if the whiskey is twice as old, it’s likely to be twice as good.
Defiant flips this notion on its head with a proprietary process that takes just 60 days. The whiskey starts with pure mountain water, barley cracked on a custom roller mill, and cultured yeast to encourage fermentation.
The ingredients are aged in a 350-gallon stainless-steel tank instead of a barrel. Spirals of American white oak are added to give the whiskey a unique flavor that Ferris says rivals the spirits distilled by traditional methods.
“We don’t agitate it, we don’t stir it, we don’t do any tricks,” he says.
But is Defiant’s method blasphemy or brilliance?
Ferris points to the reactions of seasoned whiskey drinkers who are surprised by the spirit’s nuanced flavors. People often ask how old the whiskey is before they taste it. Ferris tells them to guess after taking a sip.
“Almost every time, people guess between six and 12 years old,” says Ferris. “When we tell them that it’s on oak for a minimum of 60 days, they cannot believe it. You’d be shocked at how fast they no longer care.”
Devoted and casual whiskey drinkers alike have a new way to taste the spirits that drive Ferris’ onshore pursuits. Defiant recently purchased a 550-acre former Girl Scout camp in Golden Valley, down the road from Bostic.
Camp Golden Valley’s spacious grounds are designed to host weddings, family gatherings, and business retreats. The camp is located just a few miles from Defiant’s distillery, and anyone of drinking age is invited to take a tour during their stay.
Guests are welcome to swim, canoe, or fish in the camp’s spring-fed lake for an authentic mountain experience. Lawn games are plentiful, and relaxed afternoons are encouraged. There’s even a movie theater for full-screen entertainment.
The camp is part of a growing trend of distilleries and breweries establishing special-event spaces. Buffalo Trace Distillery has a wedding venue on its grounds in Frankfort, Kentucky, made from 200-year-old cabins. Highland Brewing Company in Asheville has a rooftop venue overlooking nearby hillsides.
Ferris says that spirits go hand-in-hand with the very nature of celebration. Raising a glass of fine whiskey not only commemorates the occasion, it connects people with the land where it was distilled. He says creating a link between revelry and drink helps bind people together.
“Spirits are so integral to human celebrations and human milestones,” he muses. “There’s a deep connection there that’s undeniable.”
Blue Ridge Distilling Company, 228 Redbud Lane, Bostic. Camp Golden Valley, 164 Girl Scout Camp Road, Golden Valley. Visit goldenvalleyevents.com and defiantwhisky.com