That’s the Spirit

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Food & Drink, Surf City

With Hidden Ships Distillery in Surf City, Andy and Amy Szwejbka have opened Topsail Island’s first distillery and craft cocktail bar.

A cocktail can be as humble as a jigger of spirits poured over ice and topped with a mixer. Or, at a place like Hidden Ships Distillery in Surf City, where mixology is a calling, a cocktail can be an exquisite craft. This is the first place in the Topsail area where you can sip bourbon at the bar overlooking the copper pot where the bourbon was born.

Hidden Ships Distillery opened in September. Owners Andy and Amy Szwejbka, a former Marine and a former nurse, have lived with their family in the Topsail area since 2007.

Andy’s journey from Marine to Master Distiller started in an RV. After his retirement, Andy, Amy, all four kids and the dog poured into a recreational vehicle and toured the United States. Their first 10 days were spent on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where the Szwejbkas experienced some of the best tastings and tours that eventually influenced their own distillery.

As the idea of building a distillery fermented, Andy and Amy researched distilleries, suppliers and, of course, cocktails, both in state and out. North Carolina has seen a growth in distilleries in the last 10 years as craft spirits have increased in demand and become tastier.

Surf City NC Hidden Ships Distillery

Both Szwejbkas graduated from Moonshine University, and Andy graduated from the University of Louisville Distilled Spirits Business Program. He oversees distillation operations, front-of-house management and sales. An equally competent distiller, Amy manages the marketing and merchandise.

The name Hidden Ships Distillery pays homage to Topsail Island’s pirate lore, where it is said that ships “hid” behind the island to escape the authorities. The ships were so hidden that only the tops of their sails were visible.

In the spring of 2023, after a successful Kickstarter campaign brought cash to supplement the family’s savings, Amy and Andy signed a lease and hired an architect. The distillery space in Triton Village began to take shape.

“We had Steve Tomori of Kindred Spirits in Wilmington advise us along the way,” Andy says. “We asked him to design the space as if he were working here. He helped us figure out where to put the distillers, the cookers. A funny story … we met Steve at the End of Days Distillery when it opened in February 2020. He even signed a bottle for me. When I called him, we realized we knew each other.”

The space at Triton Village has been maximized for efficiency. The bar and lounge occupy about half of the space, while the distillery exists in an almost mirrored space. The tasting room is at its northern end, near the parking lot. Tours will flow freely from the lounge and through the distillery to end in the tasting room.

The distillery floor was reinforced almost to the strength of an airport runway and will easily support barrels of spirits stacked four high. The tasting room has a long table where guests can sip and learn about the spirits. Merchandise is available in the tasting room.

The jewel tones of the bar area offer homage to speakeasies of the past. Small tables and a lounge area create conversation spaces, like those of the pre-Prohibition era of drinking and socializing. The signature curved bar seats a dozen guests on comfortable stools. The back bar area was structurally adapted to install a 19-foot window so patrons can view the distillery operations.

Hidden Ships Distillery Surf City

“The sexy, copper-plated, 250-gallon pot still sits front and center,” Andy says. “You can see the pots used for initial distilling and final distilling. Each spirit requires a different amount of time. Gin, for example, takes two weeks to a month to settle and age before it’s ready to drink.”

Hidden Ships distills gin, white rum, bourbon, bourbon cream and vodka. All are available for sale in the tasting room.

Amy says they use as many local products as possible in their distilling process.

“We sourced our initial bourbon from Southern Distilling Company in Statesville, N.C.,” Amy says. “After we received the bourbon, we took it through secondary aging with sherry-infused spirals. That created a taste profile unique to Hidden Ships. We sourced local corn for the bourbon and have local farmers take away the used mash to feed livestock.”

Ice in a cocktail can be as important to balance and taste as the spirits in the drink. The distillery has a reverse osmosis system to purify the water for both ice and spirits. Machines crank out 2-inch square cubes for sipping drinks as well as the more traditional crescent-shaped ice cubes used in cocktails.

The Szwejbkas are drawn to the pre-Prohibition era, when drinking was a social experience in a quiet place with stimulating conversation and an Old Fashioned or Rob Roy. This brings to mind the dinner clubs in old movies, with patrons in tuxedos and floor-length dresses, or many sultry New Orleans with drinkers enjoying a Sazerac of rye, absinthe and bitters from the local apothecary, Peychaud. These were cocktails made with three or four ingredients, like the John Collins and Tom Collins, one made with gin and the other with whiskey, and both with simple syrup and lemon.

The diverse cocktail menu offers pre-Prohibition standards like Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Martinis and drinks long forgotten like the Boulevardier (or Man About Town, named after the magazine) created for ex-pats living in Paris in the 1920s. There is also The Last Word, a gin-based drink created in Detroit. Hidden Ships’ cocktails will cost about $11.

A historian by nature and college degree, Andy has a healthy respect for and knowledge of the vast history of spirits in America, and he plans to share what he has learned with everyone.

“Hidden Ships Distillery offers educational classes on mixology, sensory training and pairings,” Andy says. “Our tours conclude with a full tasting that teaches you how to smell and taste each spirit.”

Hidden Ships is open Wednesday through Sunday, and, according to Andy, is the only place for bottle sales on Sunday. And there is something for everyone here.

Hidden Ships Distillery Surf City NC

“We serve local craft beers,” Amy says. “We serve wine and mocktails made with nonalcoholic spirits too.”

While Hidden Ships Distillery is not a sports bar, Buffalo Bills fans will rejoice to hear the business is the first local Bills-backed bar. Outdoor seating complements the statement bar and offers great views of the setting sun. Several food establishments and food trucks are nearby. Much of Surf City’s off-island growth is within walking distance of Triton Village, now filled with shops, services and restaurants.

“I think there’s an appetite here for quality spirits and classic cocktails,” Andy says.

The first few months of operations bear witness to that. Tours and tastings of bourbon cream, bourbon, white rum, vodka and gin are available Wednesday through Sunday at this service-disabled veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB).

Want to visit?
Hidden Ships Distillery
116 Charlie Medlin Drive, Surf City

Photography by Unique Media & Design

About the author

Kate Carey

Kate Carey

A former Ohioan and Buckeyes football fan, Kate M Carey has her toes firmly placed in the sands of Topsail Island. Kate writes fiction about people and the strange things they do for love and essays on the politics of everyday life. Her work has appeared in Noctua, Indiana Voice, The Tishman Review, Panoply, Camel City Digest, Savannah Writers Anthology, and County Line Journal. A guest columnist for Women AdvaNCe, she and her husband, an Episcopal priest, moved to North Carolina in 2015 and have adult children living in Ohio and Florida.