Southern Makers

In the Spirit: Zest

By: maggieward

For two of America’s youngest distillers, the founders of Zest lemon drop vodka have a long history with spirit making. Jake MacDowell and Justin Buchanan met at Wofford College, in South Carolina, where they experimented with recreating Colonial-era rum for a school research project. A few years (and history lessons) later, the former college roommates ended up in Charleston. There, they founded Red Harbor Rum, a barrel-aged dark rum with charred oak characteristics that pay homage to American tradition and Charleston heritage. 

Creating a cocktail with Zest and Topo Chico

When Covid-19 hit, the pair wanted to start fresh. “We wanted to create something completely different–light, refreshing, and fun,” says MacDowell. MacDowell and Buchanan tapped into their network of industry professionals, asking what bartenders and consumers were looking for. Their research led to the creation of an all-natural, lemon drop in a bottle they called Zest. From its inception, the goal was to make an organic product composed of simple, clean ingredients that mixed well in cocktails and still tasted delicious when sipped on its own. They started with a nationwide search for the best lemon juice, sampling dozens before landing one extracted from California lemon trees. They combined it with high quality vodka and pure cane sugar–the minimalist, unprocessed ingredients set Zest apart from its counterparts full of artificial sweeteners and unnatural flavor additives. The result is a vibrant, low-calorie and gluten-free citrus spirit–it is a taste of summer any time of year. 

Today, it is bottled in Piedmont, South Carolina, but they’ll soon be moving operations to Charleston as they always intended. A perk for the Holy City boys who still have their hands on every bottle that’s produced, ensuring their small-batch liquor operation meets the same high standards they have valued from the start. With Zest’s popularity rising to make it one of South Carolina’s fastest-growing liquor brands, MacDowell and Buchanan plan to tackle one market at a time. It’s a philosophy they developed over their experience with Red Harbor Rum: It’s important to conquer your own backyard first. Lucky for us, it’s the perfect spirit for backyard drinking, which MacDowell suggests mixing with club soda over ice and garnishing with fresh rosemary for an effervescent Summer Zest cocktail

Summer Zest 

Yields 1 cocktail 

2 ounces Zest lemon drop vodka 

5 ounces club soda

Combine ingredients in a glass filled with ice and garnish with a lemon wheel and fresh rosemary. 

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