There’s a certain mystique (at least in my mind) about the production of spirits. When it comes to homemade, I haven’t yet even dabbled in wine or beer. In this venue, I appreciate the efforts of others. I have no deign of trying to replicate the results. I’ve visited several wineries and nodded appreciatively at aging tanks; at breweries I have gazed at networks of tanks connected by pipes and valves, following their path through the assistance of diagrams. I haven’t really felt like I’ve left those places with an understanding of how they have worked, yet I’ve wanted to someday try my hand at making my own, perhaps.
Whiskey, on the other hand, is something that I’ve never pondered making on my own. The act of distillation adds a level of complexity that I don’t want to try on my own. Somehow, though, seeing a working small-time still (even if not at work when I saw it) condenses in my mind how spirits are made in a way I hadn’t grasped before. Then again, the tour guide probably has at least as much of a role in that understanding as anything else.
Last week, I visited Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpepper, Virginia, and received a whirlwind of a tour from its very hands-on, quick speaking proprietor, Chuck Miller, who provides many such walk-throughs at his “living museum.”
His operations should by no means be assumed to be the only working still in the hills of central Virginia. His work draws heavily on the history of moonshining in the area, and Miller even touts his product as “legal moonshine,” operating with “the blessing of the Commonwealth of Virginia because we pay them taxes.”
Truth be told, the still also has to comply to other regulations in order to maintain that blessing: the product reaches fruition at a natural strength of 150 proof, but Miller must dilute it to 100 proof in order to comply with the law. Even so, despite having produced spirits for sale since 1988, it’s only since 2006 that Mr. Miller has been able to make sales of his product on his farm—the first time since George Washington that anyone’s been legally able to do so in Virginia, as Mr. Miller points out more than once.