CHARLESTON -- Mike Lata was among the first to congratulate Orangeburg native Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell of High Wire Distilling Co. on being finalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards.
After hearing their names announced via live broadcast, Lata of FIG sent a quick text to the pair, saying, “You guys are amazing!”
The couple was nominated in the Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional category, the foundation announced Wednesday.
Their shared text thread got another burst of exclamation points when it was announced that FIG advanced as a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category.
“I sent the vomit emoji and a smile,” Lata said. “Because of the nerves and the relief.”
While the couple behind High Wire viewed the live video in Marshall’s office, they sent “Congrats!” messages to friends who were nominated in the competition regarded as the Oscars of the food world.
And then, to their surprise, their names were called.
“Ann’s face went all white,” Blackwell said. “That’s not a typical thing.”
They then tried to type up appropriate responses to excited friends, such as Lata.
“We resorted to a lot of all-caps, woo-hoos and O.M.G.s,” Marshall said.
Lata watched the broadcast, which was being streamed from an event in Houston, at home with his fiancee, and son. They all jumped up and down when the presenter listed FIG.
“It’s like getting an emotional punch to the gut,” he said. “I’m just trying to process it.”
The restaurant has twice won the award for Best Chef Southeast, and last year won the award for Outstanding Wine Program.
Of making it to the finals in the Outstanding Restaurant category, Lata says, “That’s the ultimate honor.”
The announcement came after eight Charleston restaurants and food and beverage makers made the long list of semifinalists.
Honorees including Steve Palmer of The Indigo Road (The Macintosh, Oak Steakhouse, Indaco and others), Evan Gaudreau of Renzo, Kevin Johnson of The Grocery and Jacques Larson of The Obstinate Daughter didn’t proceed to the final round.
Marshall said they didn’t expect to either, calling themselves “underdogs.”
“We’re a little stunned,” she said. “It’s such a big category with giants in the industry, so we had no idea which way it would go.”
“We saw it as a massive long shot,” Blackwell added.
Other finalists in the category include Cathy Corison of Corison Winery in St. Helena, Calif.; Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines in Napa, Calif.; Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine; and Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif.
“It’s pretty cool to be on that list,” Blackwell said. “It feels scrappy. It’s like, ‘Yeah, Charleston is small, but it’s pretty cool.’ It’s obviously a huge honor. It makes us feel pretty warm inside.”
The winners will be selected by a panel of approximately 600 voters, consisting of many previous award winners as well as food writers and cooking instructors.
A win would be a first for Marshall and Blackwell, who founded High Wire Distilling Co. The distillery opened in 2013 in a 6,000-square-foot former painting contractor’s warehouse on Upper King Street.
Since then, High Wire’s Jimmy Red bourbon has since been featured on NPR and Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy podcast. It made Esquire’s list of “Best New Bottles” and Garden & Gun named the whiskey the best Made in the South product in 2018. They made the short list for the James Beard award last year.
But, no, Marshall said they’re not thinking about winning.
“We feel like that’s a statistical impossibility,” Marshall said. “We’re going to get dolled up and go to Chicago and have a good time.”
“We’re going to enjoy the moment,” Blackwell added.
Meanwhile, they said they’ll find time to celebrate making the short list.
“We might go on a longer lunch today,” Marshall said. “We might have a glass of wine or two. And then we’ll have to go back to work.”
Winners will be announced on May 6 at the 2019 James Beard Awards Gala at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The gala will again be hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the actor known for starring on “Modern Family.”
For the full list of finalists, go to jamesbeard.org.