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OLD NICK WILLIAMS ROOTED IN HERITAGE & TRADITION

Updated: 1 day ago

Nestled in the charming town of Lewisville, North Carolina, the Old Nick Williams Distillery stands as a testament to a centuries-old family tradition of distilling. Ashlee Ellis, Zeb Williams and Van Williams, the torchbearers of this unique legacy, have breathed new life into their family business, preserving the art of crafting fine spirits. Cape Fear Living talked to Co-Owner Ahlee Ellis to learn more.


Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to start ONW.

My background was originally in culinary, but I later moved on to administrative work, and Zeb owned an advertising company for 20 years. Zeb’s family has a deep-rooted history in the distilling world and had always dreamed of someday reviving the family’s distillery. It was in his blood.

Where does the name Old Nick Williams come from?

The distillery was initially established in 1768 on the same property we are on today by Joseph Williams. At its origin, the distillery was named the Joseph Williams Distillery. It was passed on from father to son until Zeb’s great-grandfather (Nicholas Glen Williams) took it over in the late 1800s after his father and grandfather passed away. At that time, he changed the name to Old Nick Williams Distillery to honor his Grandfather, Nicholas Lanier Williams. The distillery became one of the largest in the US, and when Federal Prohibition was enacted, the revenuers came and disposed of 28,000 gallons of liquor on the property. When we re-established the distillery in 2015, we wanted to keep the name and continue the legacy. Prohibition was the downfall of the distillery, but we wanted to give it a go one more time.

How has owning a distillery in Lewisville, NC, shaped & influenced your business?

From the beginning, we wanted to honor the family history and stick with our roots as much as possible. Our goal was not only to produce a whiskey we could be proud of again but also to teach visitors about the incredible history behind the brand. The Williams family played a large part in the history of Lewisville and American Distilling, and we wanted to share that with anyone who came to visit. A lot has changed in the 100+ years since the distillery closed, so we knew there would be a need for much more than just whiskey. Zeb and I fell in love with Jamaican-style rum early in our relationship while in Jamaica, and we knew we wanted to produce our own one day, which led to our Jamaican Rum brand. We also knew there was a massive market for vodka, so we decided to add a line of vodkas to the portfolio. The laws are constantly changing, and we learned that to survive, you must adapt, so we are always coming up with new ideas and ways to improve our business.


North Carolina liquor laws are strict, and many have been in place since the end of Prohibition. Zeb and I are heavily involved with making law changes through the Distillers Association of NC. At the end of 2019, we changed a law that would allow distilleries in NC to start selling cocktails, so we added a bar inside the distillery. We curated a cocktail menu featuring only our spirits and began seeing a need for something for the locals to do in the evening without having to venture too far from home. At that point, we started adding live music from local artists.



Soon after, COVID hit and completely changed the game for everyone. We immediately switched from making liquor to making hand sanitizer. As we moved into “phase 1.5” and were once again able to open our doors to the public, people came in droves to get out of their houses. At that point, Zeb had the brilliant idea to build a large outdoor music area and stage that would allow us to handle many more people but still allow for “social distancing”. The community needed it, and so did we. Since then, we have started bringing in more prominent names and acts, many coming from all over the US, and we are hoping to put Lewisville on the map.


Laws once again changed to allow us to carry other liquor, so now we have a cocktail menu with over 60 cocktails made with our spirits and a large selection of high-end whiskeys, bourbons, and tequilas. With the bourbon craze, we noticed many would chase these elusive brands and spend hundreds of dollars on the secondary market for something they may have yet to try. We wanted to give customers an option to come in, try it and decide just how much they liked it before they continued the hunt. The plus side is that while they are here, we can introduce them to our spirits if they haven’t tried them before and give them the ability to have a locally made, easy-to-find, reasonably priced spirit to have at home.


We also changed the law to allow us to sell bottles at the distillery on Sundays. This has been huge, as we often have people travelling through the area from out of state, and they are now able to take a little piece of Lewisville home with them.

What sets your spirits apart and makes them unique?

Our Bourbon, steeped in history, is a testament to our unique approach. We're using the same recipe that was used prior to the Prohibition shutdown, on the same property, by the same family. This historical connection is what makes our Bourbon truly special and worth experiencing.

Our rum is unique (and my favorite product) because we ferment and distill it just like they do on the Island. Zeb and I made several trips to Jamaica and picked the brains of the chemists and distillers at a large distillery there. They were kind enough to guide and help us perfect our recipe. We are ageing our rum in our used bourbon barrels. Ironically, Fred Minnick, a bourbon historian, visited us in 2018 and discovered a receipt from 1797, when we sent used whiskey barrels to Jamaica for them to age their rum. This is the first documented case of a barrel being taken from one country to another to age another spirit. The greatest satisfaction I get is for someone from the Island to try it and tell me they feel at home.

On the vodka side of things, we have a super unique hemp-infused vodka. Very few hemp-infused vodkas are on the market, and ours is the very first bottle to have a full hemp leaf on the front. It has become one of our top sellers. As I am sure you can imagine, getting the federal government to approve it was a battle.

Do you have any new releases you want readers to know about?

We have a few things coming down the pipeline, but the next special release is a Bourbon Barrel Rested Vodka. We hope to have it available by the end of summer.

Approximately once a year, we release a Bottled in Bond Bourbon. We select one of the oldest and best barrels of our bourbon, and it sells fast. We have already released the one for 2024, but always keep an eye out. You never know when we may find another barrel that meets the mark.

Several times a year, we have a barrel pick. Bourbon groups or ABC Boards often want to pick a barrel, and we will do a special release for them.

Can readers visit the distillery?

We are open seven days a week and offer tours Monday through Saturday. Inside, a mini museum showcases our history and pre-prohibition artifacts, designed and created by The Discovery Channel at the end of 2018.

Our bar, The Busted Barrel Cocktail Bar, is open daily with live music most weekends. We are family and pet-friendly (please keep pets leased as we are a farm and have lots of free-range chickens and ducks roaming around). You can visit www.bustedbarrelbar.com for a calendar of events. We have some amazing music this summer and fall that you don’t want to miss. We are also a Harvest Host location, so if you have a camper or RV and are a member of Harvest Host, you can stay the night here on the farm.

I like telling people we are a hidden gem off the beaten path. It is quiet and peaceful out here, and a great place to come, have a drink and relax. To learn more about the distillery, our hours of operation, and its history, please visit www.oldnickwhiskey.com

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