When Lloyd Keel opened a distillery in Henry County three years ago, he envisioned a hobby business built on his longtime interest in making whiskey.
As a boy growing up in rural southeastern Alabama, Keel and his buddies sometimes ran across the remains of Prohibition-era moonshine stills while they were playing in the woods.
As he grew older, his curiosity grew, too. He read many books on the art of distilling and spirit production, and he did a lot of experimenting. In 2014, he obtained a federal distiller’s permit and opened the distillery in downtown Headland in 2018.
On opening weekend, Keel quickly realized his back-stock wasn’t going to be enough to meet demand.
“I told my wife, ‘Babe, we’ve got a problem,’” he said. “We were going to run out of aged whiskey before the new product was ready, so we had to start making stuff we don’t have to age.”
That’s when Keel added flavored moonshine products like peach, blueberry and blackberry to his lineup, alongside bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey and other spirits.
Business has since boomed for Keel and Co. Distilling – with double-digit sales increases the first two years and triple-digit growth this year – far surpassing those early expectations of a hobby business.
Meanwhile, Keel, who also runs a computer IT business, has continued to invest in the distillery, which has been featured on the national Distillery Trail and draws customers from across Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
New and upcoming projects, worth about $1.5 million, include an expanded tasting room that seats 100 people and a 16,000-square-foot event space that will be used for banquets, weddings and corporate events.
Catalyst for development
Keel said microdistilleries like his are a growing trend, much like microbreweries were several years ago.
“We make nice specialty drinks. We’re a tasting room, not a bar,” he said. “We’re excited that people enjoy it. It’s adding value to the city and bringing a lot of people in that wouldn’t normally visit Headland.”
Brenda Tuck, Rural Development manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce, said a vibrant downtown can have a big impact in rural communities.
“Keel and Co. is helping to turn Headland into a destination point for visitors, who spend money there and also contribute to an energy and excitement one might not expect to find in a small town,” she said.
The distillery has become a main source of entertainment in Headland, with bands, karaoke, food trucks and other special events every weekend.
And all that activity has spurred more interest in the city.
Keel and his wife, Kay, are both Main Street board members who helped start Under the Oaks, a free community concert in the town square on the third Friday of every month in the spring, summer and fall. Musical acts range from a symphony to Southern rock ‘n’ roll, with 1,000 or more people often attending.
“It’s bringing people to downtown that wouldn’t normally be here, plus our community is having a ball,” Hicks said. “It’s a very family-friendly atmosphere.
“People bring their chairs and their dogs and just enjoy being downtown.”
‘Something going on’
Hicks said the Keels think outside the box in terms of promoting their business and community.
For example, the distillery partnered with Bottle Tree, an upscale restaurant in Headland, to offer whiskey tastings, as well as menu items made with Keel and Co. whiskey.
In the past three years, Headland has added 12 businesses, including a bakery, photography studio, pizzeria, nutritional milkshake store, children’s clothing and toy shop, Hicks said.
“We’re growing because of people like the Keels, who are very forward-thinking and understand the community,” she said. “A lot of people used to say there’s nothing to do in Headland, and now they say, ‘Hey, Headland’s got something going on.’”
This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.