LED BY BURNT CHURCH DISTILLERY, WATTERSON BRANDS BUILDS BUSINESSES, BRINGS JOBS, AND GIVES BACK TO THE LOWCOUNTRY
BY BARRY KAUFMAN | PHOTOS BY RITTERBECK PHOTOGRAPHY
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
A guy moves to the Lowcountry from the Midwest, having amassed a successful career up north. He’s thinking about retiring but knows that his Type-A personality doesn’t make that even remotely possible. So he decides he’s going to stretch his creative muscles a little and see what he can come up with.
Most of the time this story ends with the guy taking up the guitar or buying a motorcycle. But Billy Watterson’s story is a little different. In fact, his is just beginning.
“I joke that I overstayed my visa,” he said with a laugh. “We’d been vacationing here for years, and I convinced my wife to stay for a summer instead of a month, and it became glaringly obvious we couldn’t leave. We fell into the lifestyle… and I realized I wasn’t done.”
He wasn’t intending to fully retire, anyway. The vast portfolio of businesses that make up Watterson Brands still excite him too much for him to truly walk away from them, although he has placed trusted personnel at the helm of many of them. Among the ventures under his corporate umbrella outside of Beaufort County, you’ll find recycling consultation firms, organic farms, disaster mitigation and even interiordesign companies.
And those are just his pre-retirement ventures. Since spectacularly failing to retire, Watterson has built an empire of businesses in the Lowcountry including the $13 million Burnt Church Distillery, which he founded with his brother, head distiller and director of innovation, Sean Watterson. Add to that his partnership with Santa Fe Café owner Marshall Sampson in creating Pizza Co. and his recent purchase of Side Hustle Brewing Company and you have a varied portfolio of businesses that employ 76 locals in a variety of capacities.
The distillery alone has had a massive economic impact on the area, beyond simply selling nearly 49,000 bottles of locally produced craft spirits. Some 80,000 people have walked through the doors of their facility since it opened in March 2021, with thousands many more enjoying their signature spirits which include Amethyst, a non-alcoholic drink creating its own category. As of mid-February, Burnt Church has sold 2,203 bottles of Amethyst and also created 22 original cocktails and three new spirits.
“Our vision for the Burnt Church Distillery has been shaped by the people of Bluffton, past and present. I am endlessly grateful for everyone’s contributions, proud of what we have achieved together, and happy to provide channels for assistance to those in need throughout our community,” Sean Watterson said.
As diverse as the firms under Watterson Brands’ Beaufort County umbrella are, they all share one overriding goal: Purpose beyond profit.
“The reason why is our primary focus. Whatever the business, the world needs to be a better place for it,” Billy Watterson said. “I couldn’t imagine starting a business where there wasn’t some component of giving back.”
Burnt Church Distillery co-founders Sean Watterson, left, and Billy Watterson.
Watterson Brands firms give back to the community through the Watterson Family Fund’s various projects, like the Lowcountry Legacy Fund, a foundation designed to build economic equality in the Lowcountry, and Help4Hope, which distributed $186,550 to restaurants to reimburse them for serving 14,924 free meals to those affected by the pandemic in 2020.
“Over time, seeing the influence business owners have, I realized we have a voice,” Billy Watterson said. “And I need to use that voice.”
One major way Watterson Brands and the Watterson Family Foundation have been able to use their collective voice is by partnering with Bluffton Town Council member Bridgette Frazier and other leaders to create Bluffton-based education entity, BlacQuity. Through creating a Black-owned business directory, offering professional development and pairing Black entrepreneurs with business mentors, BlacQuity looks to help raise up black-owned business in the area.
It may also have led to the next project, a joint venture with Frazier that will go into the old iconic deer tongue building on May River Road.
“There’s going to be a huge Gullah culture component to it, giving people the opportunity taste, touch, learn and take it with them,” Billy Watterson said. “It’s going to be an incredible way to experience Bluffton in a way you haven’t been able to.”
That’s not to say Bluffton will be the sole beneficiary of the excitement. The craft beer crowd was sent frothing recently when Watterson Brands officially purchased Arrow Road’s Side Hustle Brewing Co. And then rumors began swirling about a new facility and expansion. Rumors which we can happily tell you are true.
Plans are under wraps now, but in typical Watterson fashion, Billy doesn’t speak of it as simply a new brewery. He speaks of it as an entertainment hotspot, a social hub and another avenue for creating positive change.
More details on Side Hustle’s expansion should be on tap later this year.