Sip Back and Relax

01 Nov 2023

Hidden Ships Distillery opens in Surf City with craft cocktails and a retro vibe


Entrepreneurs Andy and Amy Szwejbka (pronounced Sh-web-kah) understand the value of timing.  As owners of Topsail Island's first craft distillery, the newly opened Hidden Ships in Surf City, the Hampstead couple becomes part of the burgeoning $30 billion global craft spirits market, which industry analysts at The Business Research Company expect to reach $83 billion by 2027. Here in the U.S., the number of craft distilleries has gone from less than a hundred in 2011 to more than 2,687 in 2002, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. Nearly 90 of those are in the Tar Heel State and about a half dozen call the Wilmington area home, according to

“Craft distilleries today are where craft breweries were 15 years ago,” says Andy, a former Marine of 21 years. “Right now we're catching the surging wave of popularity for crafted spirits.” And for all things retro. Think clothing, vinyl records and, yes, cocktails. More on that later.

“When Andy retired from the Marine Corps and I retired from nursing 21 years ago, we went in search of an encore career,” says Amy. In some ways it was a literal search with Andy, Amy, their four children and their dog, spending a year touring the United States. A key part of that experience turned out to be the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where they enjoyed touring some of the nation's finest distilleries.

That experience, along with one at Murto Made Distillery in Huntersville, North Carolina, shortly before their cross-country adventure, led the married couple of 21 years to consider launching a distillery of their own.

“That's where I had my first smoked old-fashioned,” recalls Andy. “Everything that went into the preparation and presentation—the burning wood chips, the smoke sent through a tube and the smoking dome—was excellent.”

Convinced that their search for an encore career had reached a successful conclusion, Andy and Amy enrolled in Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where they completed an intensive 6-day hands-on course combining technical spirits training and business management education. Andy also earned his graduate certificate in Distilled Spirits from the University of Louisville.

“We understood the value of education and training, but also realized that we didn't know all the ins and outs of the business,” he says. “So, we went in search of a distillery consultant and found Steve Tomori of Kindred Spirits Consulting in Leland, whom we met a few years earlier during the grand opening of End of Days Distillery in Wilmington, where he worked as the master distiller. Steve was pivotal in our distillery plans, advising us on everything from equipment to installation to recipes.”

Retro Vibe

The menu is a classy mix of 16 “pre-prohibition inspired” bourbon, gin, rum and vodka classics (four each), none of which feature more than three or four ingredients. 

Hidden Ships distills the spirits, though the initial bourbon is sourced from Southern Distilling Company in Statesville, North Carolina, before going through secondary aging at Hidden Ships, using sherry-infused spirals to achieve a unique taste. 

Featured drinks would have been served in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some, such as Manhattans, Martinis, Tom Collins and Mojitos are familiar. Others not so much: The Boulevardier Valentino, The Last Word and Rum Fix, to name a few. Also on the menu: eight rotating North Carolina craft beers (draft only) on tap, cider in cans and wines (two reds, two whites and a prosecco).

“We don't want to overwhelm our customers, so we include only the classics that have been around for more than a hundred years,” says Andy. 

Amy adds that a lot of thought and planning went into the decision-making process for the menu. 

“When it came to researching and deciding on which drinks to include, Andy (who majored in history at Worcester State University in Massachusetts) really nerded out… which is a good thing.”

Meanwhile, it was Amy, with the help of Port City Design in Wilmington, who set out to achieve a retro aesthetic.

“We wanted to match the decor with the retro drinks theme,” Amy explains. So, we incorporated tufted turquoise chairs and sofas, simple tables, gold accents and whimsical art reminiscent of that era. A Wall of Fame comprised of engraved wooden hexagon shapes honors Kickstarter campaign contributors. The Hidden Ships logo itself, with its geometric shapes, also has an Art Deco feel. And front and center behind the curved bar are the copper stills and wood barrels that add considerably to the venue's ambiance as do the stylish drop-down lights.

Tours and tastings are available Wednesday through Sunday and classes on mixology, sensory training and pairing are also offered. Just before Thanksgiving, patrons can look forward to a bourbon cream, as well as an aged rum and gin this spring.

Located in the Triton Village shopping center, which is fast becoming a food-and-drink hub, the Szwejbkas plan to add food trucks in the future. For now, they invite patrons to bring take-out meals and snacks from “any of the talented restaurants nearby.” Four-legged friends are also welcome. 

More in the works: special events to benefit causes near and dear to their hearts including military causes and The Reel Housewives of Topsail Island, which raises money and offers immediate support directly to local women affected by breast cancer. 

“Giving back to our community is important to us,” says Amy. “And we really hope our community feels special when they visit us and that we're able to provide them with a memorable experience,” adds Andy. 


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