From the Lab to the Still
Danielle Word Donaldson ’09, co-owner of Chemist Spirits in Asheville, North Carolina, is making a big splash in craft cocktails – with a little help from her Furman chemistry degree.
A simple question set Danielle Word Donaldson ’09 on an unexpected journey, one she never could have predicted but that she wouldn’t change for anything. Donaldson was doing a pharmacy residency in Asheville, North Carolina, after finishing graduate school in 2014. She already knew the area after many family trips to the mountains to escape the summer heat in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Her parents were living part-time at their mountain home in nearby Cashiers, North Carolina, and her mother, Debbie Word, had become fascinated by a unique part of local history: moonshining.
One day, Word asked her daughter, “How hard is distilling?” She asked the right person: Donaldson had graduated from Furman with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
“Distilling is the first reaction we learn to set up in our hands-on lab experience,” says Donaldson. “I had never made anything potable in the chemistry lab before, so that was a new experience. But because of my background and knowledge, I knew that I could.”
The partnership continued when Donaldson bought her mother “a cute little 5-gallon copper still” for Christmas in 2014. The two began distilling gin, experimenting with local botanicals, inspired by the spirit’s traditional use in folk medicine in the region. “It was a fun project that we worked on together and never could have imagined what it would turn into,” Donaldson says.
A few years of research and development followed. While Donaldson continued her full-time work as a clinical pharmacist at the Asheville VA Medical Center, Word traveled to Scotland and consulted with the owner of a small distillery in Perthshire. Eventually, she became an award-winning distiller – a rarity in a male-dominated field – and decided it was time to go into business.
In 2018, co-owners Word and Donaldson opened the doors of Chemist Spirits in downtown Asheville. The three-story facility holds four large, hand-hammered copper stills. A tasting room provides samples during tours, and a cocktail bar, Antidote, serves craft concoctions made from Chemist’s products, which include American Gin, Navy Strength Gin, Barrel-Rested Gin and a chocolate-orange gin liqueur. The distillery also collaborated with Asheville’s Biltmore Estate to produce Biltmore Conservatory Rose Gin.
Bouquets and backbones
Chemist Spirits has won Double Gold at the Women’s Wine and Spirits Awards in London, Best in Class at the Berlin International Spirit Awards and Double Gold at the John Barleycorn Awards. Chemist’s American Gin was chosen as the Gin of the Month for the popular Craft Gin Club of London. Garden & Gun magazine also named Chemist a finalist in its Made in the South Awards. And in June, Chemist was named the official gin of the 2022 Daytime Emmy Awards.
The critics have had high praise for Chemists’ varied offerings: For instance, Jim Vorel of Paste magazine said: “On the Nose (Chemist Spirits’ Navy- Strength Gin) has a pleasant and assertive bouquet of citrus and spiced pear, along with heady baking spices and some florals. On the palate, the resin of juniper provides a solid backbone, along with huge floral notes, ginger and anise-like spice. There’s some bitterness to this one as well, which helps to rein in the considerable sweetness at this proof point.”
The broad palette of flavors is possible thanks to Donaldson’s untold hours in Furman’s chemistry lab, where she became familiar with a piece of lab equipment called the rotary evaporator or “rotovap.”
“It’s not something that a lot of distilleries are using, but because of my chemistry background, I was able to bring it into our process,” she says. “There are so many flavors that can’t make it through a traditional distilling process, so the rotovap gives you the ability to get some more soft and more distinct flavors. I would have never heard of it before if I hadn’t done my research at Furman.”
‘A great basis of knowledge’
Donaldson’s favorite professor, Karen Buchmueller, “made such a profound impact on me and made me feel like I could accomplish anything with the right amount of hard work and skill set,” she remembers.
Buchmueller recalls an early-morning biochemistry class soon after the university transitioned from a trimester calendar to the current two-semester system.
“I had a whole bunch of seniors at 8:30 in the morning, and they just had to switch to this new curriculum their senior year,” Buchmueller says. “Students were understandably cranky, but Danielle was not. She was awake and happy to be there, clearly enjoying the material.”
For two years, Donaldson worked in the laboratory of her research and academic advisor, Tim Hanks, the Charles Ezra Daniel Professor of Chemistry.
“He helped me become more independent, and he gave me the coolest research project to work on: ‘Dispersion of Cationic Polydiacetylene Liposomes in Alginate Fibers,’” Donaldson says.
“Danielle had great interpersonal skills,” says Hanks, who remembers Donaldson acting as a research mentor for younger students. “She is highly empathetic and naturally gregarious.”
Donaldson “was so excited to be hands-on in the lab,” says Buchmueller. “She loved the process of investigating ideas. So, her going into a field where she can make something doesn’t surprise me.”
Hanks thought she would go far in graduate school following her research interests, but – despite being recruited by the University of Southern Mississippi, one of the top polymer programs in the country – she entered the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy, leading to a Pharm.D. degree in 2014.
“Furman prepared me for that so well,” says Donaldson. “I had such a great basis of knowledge and ability to study that it made graduate school so much easier.”
She now works at the Asheville VA Medical Center.
“I love working with the veterans,” she says. “That’s been a passion of mine since early on.”
Donaldson and her husband, James – Chemist Spirits’ creative director – also stay busy with their two small children. Plans include another tasting room and cocktail lounge in Asheville and bringing Chemist Spirits to the bars, restaurants and retail stores in the state where Donaldson first got to know the rotovap.
“We are hoping to be in South Carolina by the end of this year,” says Donaldson. “Furman has been such a big part of my journey, and it feels like we’re finally coming home to where it all started.”