Raise a Glass to the Plateau

04 Apr 2024

Chemist Spirits, Old Edwards Inn and HCLT invite you to sip their Discovery Gin


“Nature is my sanctuary, always has been,” says Debbie Word, conservation easement land donor and founder of Chemist Spirits. “I grew up barefoot in the woods where we spent all of our time outside, catching frogs and snakes, building forts and climbing rocks.” Today, Debbie has a sanctuary of her own in her conserved family property just outside of Cashiers. She discovered paradise among some of the world's oldest mountains and has taken steps to ensure it will remain protected forever by conserving her family land with Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust (HCLT). Now, a collaboration between HCLT, Chemist Spirits and Old Edwards Inn (OEI) is shining a light on conserving the wild places she has always loved. 

In the late 80s, Debbie and her husband, Brad, were living in Savannah with their two small children when they heard about the mountain town of Highlands and its cooler temperatures. They started vacationing on the plateau, and it wasn’t long before they fell in love with the area and its lush mountains, cool waters and small-town charm. In the mid 90s, they decided to take the leap and buy their own property. They searched and found a place steeped in the nature that drew them here, a place they named Firewater. It was just the tonic Debbie was looking for, and she wanted to protect it.

After reading about “conservation easements,” a conservation tool that helps private landowners conserve their ecologically valuable land by donating some of their development rights, Debbie contacted HCLT to learn more about protecting their property this way. 

Like many easement donors, the Words worked with HCLT to carve out a few acres for their family home and protected the rest from future development with an easement, ensuring Firewater would remain the pristine place they fell in love with for generations to come. “We are stewards of the land, and we can hand this down,” said Debbie. “The way HCLT does it is beautiful; families can pass this down and still live here.” 

And so, the Word family can now enjoy their home surrounded by the majestic trees, clean waters and flourishing wildlife that Debbie loves, knowing that their land will remain in its natural state forever, which benefits us all. By conserving their family land, Debbie and Brad’s great grandchildren will have a chance to fall in love with this place, too.

Land conserved with HCLT always provides public benefit, sometimes by protecting habitat for wildlife so animals have places to feed, breed, migrate and raise their young, or by protecting our water (water that originates here eventually either makes its way to the Gulf or Atlantic depending on which side of the mountain it flows from, affecting all those in its path), or by protecting rare and endangered species of plants and animals because a diverse ecosystem is a healthy one.

It was at their family cabin nestled deep in Firewater Gorge that Debbie’s life would take an unexpected and exciting turn. Debbie asked for a still for Christmas; it was a handmade five-gallon copper pot still. She says she wanted to figure out why moonshine tasted so bad, so she and her daughter, Danielle, who was a chemist, started experimenting with various recipes using local botanicals. Soon their hobby would lead to something more. 

One day, sitting around the kitchen table, they started to imagine how fun it would be to open their own distillery. Nearby Asheville had plenty of breweries, why not a distillery? Now, several years later, Chemist Spirits is a thriving business. 

The name was chosen in honor of Danielle and inspired by the inventiveness of prohibition era chemists who found a loophole to access contraband as the only legal producers of whiskey, to be prescribed by physicians and sold by pharmacists to cure what ails you. With a 1920s speakeasy style tasting room in Asheville called Antidote and an award-winning, ever-expanding selection of craft spirits, this female-led distillery has made a name for itself, earning national and even international recognition for their innovative and perfectly blended spirits. 

Now, in a unique collaboration, Chemist Spirits and the world class Old Edwards Inn have combined their creative talents to mastermind a gin that embodies a taste of the plateau’s wild places and helps to conserve them with Discovery Gin. A portion of the sales from Discovery Gin goes directly to HCLT to help keep the plateau wild. Discovery was released last fall and sold out locally within days. But never fear, it is being served throughout OEI properties and a second release is scheduled to hit shelves this spring.

Local botanicals continue to provide inspiration for The Chemist, and most recently a few very special botanical ambassadors took center stage in Discovery Gin.

Juniperus communis is a common juniper in some places but rare on the plateau. During the last ice age, a number of flora and fauna made their way to our area as our mountains were not glaciated (covered in ice), and the more moderate temperatures provided suitable habitat for some plants and animals that previously had not been here. Some of those species have remained and are known as glacial relics. A strand of juniper on HCLT-conserved Satulah Mountain is one of those glacial relics and was the inspiration for Discovery Gin. Sustainability is of the utmost importance, so berries were responsibly hand harvested with the help of HCLT. 

Discovery Gin also features multiflora rose, a botanical that is invasive here. Debbie says that they wanted to include this enticing but dangerous plant that is a menace on the plateau to raise awareness of the threat invasive species pose here. Education is key to fighting this problem.

Invasive plants are non-natives that have been introduced to an area and outcompete native plants, reducing food sources and habitat availability for local wildlife. If invasives take hold, they could wreak havoc on our ecosystem, causing everything we love about this place to slowly unravel. Many invasive plants are used in local landscaping, so it is easy to unknowingly contribute to this problem. Burning bush, English ivy, Japanese knotweed, privet and bittersweet are just a few examples of species to avoid. To learn more, visit ncwildflower.org.

Another way to ensure that the wild places of the plateau remain is to support those businesses that promote sustainability.

Old Edwards Inn is no stranger to supporting conservation on the plateau and has been a HCLT Conservation Business Partner for the past several years. At certain OEI properties, guests can opt into a small donation at checkout, and this money goes directly to conserving our wild places and, perhaps more importantly, reminds those who love these mountains that protecting them is up to all of us. OEI is a founding member of the new Coins for Conservation initiative that helps local businesses support conservation. Contact HCLT’s Development Director, Julie Schott, at julie@hcltnc.org to learn more.

Reflecting on why her family has supported conservation on the plateau both by conserving their own land and by being champions for the land through Chemist Spirits, Debbie said, “It’s always difficult to see pristine land completely torn apart.” While there can be tax benefits to conserving your land, that is not what motivated Debbie to protect Firewater. “I am very passionate about taking care of these mountains. It won’t happen unless people stand up and take action.”

HCLT is a nationally accredited nonprofit land conservation organization that serves southern Jackson and Macon counties. Learn how you might conserve your land through easement or an outright gift: hcltnc.org. 828-526-1111, info@hcltnc.org.

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