If it’s Legal, Is it Still Moonshine?

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.

The relative simplicity of what’s at play in producing the liquor is demonstrated with a small model of a moonshine operation on display in the gift shop/ museum portion of the Belmont Farm Distillery.

The basics are quite straightforward: corn meal and malt is cooked to make a mash, which is then mixed with yeast and fermented. After four days of fermentation, the mix goes flat and is pumped into the still. This soupy mixture is heated to 180 F: hot enough to vaporize the alcohol, which boils at 173 F; but too cool to boil the water. The steam collects in a second chamber called the doubler. From how I understand things, pressure builds as more steam is vaporized into the doubler, but because the chamber is not directly over the heating element, much of the water remains behind while most of the ethanol continues through the copper tubing, which coils through a chamber of cold water, causing it to condense and drip out into some sort of collection chamber (here pictured as a bucket).

The actual equipment used at Belmont Farm is obviously a bit more advanced than what is portrayed in the model, but much of it is still bordering on being antique, which lends credence to the distillery’s claims of being a living museum. The still, for instance, dates to 1933 (”It’ll be celebrating its 75th anniversary this year,” Chuck notes).

Most of the equipment used in the fermentation process is copper, with the exception of the stainless steel yeast tank in which Chuck maintains the culture he uses in making his whiskey. Chuck runs through the process once a week, producing 10,000 gallons of whiskey per year. He produces two products: Kopper Kettle, which is a bourbon-style, oak-aged whiskey made from a mash of corn, wheat, and barley; and Virginia Lightning, a corn whiskey which is bottled young.

The aging process adds complexity to the Kopper Kettle. At Belmont Farm, aging is done in two stages: two months in stainless steel and two years in oak barrels. When Chuck opens the lid of his stainless steel aging tank, the aroma that floods your senses is powerful and concentrated. I thought it was a beautiful thing, and I really would have loved to have tasted it.

Unfortunately, that was impossible. In addition to regulating the strength of the product, another concession that Chuck must make in order to be licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia is a prohibition of consumption on the premises of his establishment. A prohibition, of course, which exempts him as the whiskey maker. “Of course I taste it,” he says, “I’m in charge of quality control.” The young Kopper Kettle whiskey spends two months in this tank, with packets of slightly charred oak and apple wood wrapped in cheese cloth helping it to mature.

Chuck’s description of the aging process helped me to understand why barrel aging has an impact on the whiskey. As he describes it, the barrels are filled and sealed; then, temperature changes affect the volume of the liquid inside. On hot days, the whiskey expands and pushes the whiskey into the oak. Sometimes, he says, the pressure can send a bung right out of a barrel. “I had one hit me in the face once, it cut my cheek.”

Cooling weather pulls the whiskey back out. In cooler weather, Chuck reports struggling to get a bung out. Between a combination of the hot and cold conditions, over the course of two years, the alcohol mingles with the wood, absorbing its flavor. Some of the barrels show evidence of this process as the whiskey gets forced right through the barrel and syrupy leaks drip down their front.

The barrels are rotated through the small aging room, and when it comes time for them to be bottled, they are treated again to a retinue of old-time equipment. They are filled at either of two machines: the main machine used dates to 1945 and, according to Mr. Miller is one of the earliest examples of a mechanical filler. He acquired this machine because reliance on the 1922 manual filler was slowing down the assembly line. The bottles are capped with the aid of a machine that dates to 1935. The company that made it, Cap ‘Em, is still in business and can still provide him with some of the parts he needs to maintain it. The labels are affixed to the bottles with a machine built in 1962, which Chuck describes as a mechanical nightmare that is nearly impossible to fix when it breaks.

The whiskey is then sold through the Virginia ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Commission), by direct purchase at the distillery, or from a limited number of other distributors. Some of the Virginia Lightning is specially labeled for the Japanese market. in addition to having all of the writing in Japanese, it depicts a straw-capped Virginian asleep under a tree, a jug of moonshine at his side. For those of us stateside, there is a limited marketplace. It is sold at a certain chain of liquor stores in Chicago. It’s also available by special order through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board at any of the state stores, though none of them stock it on their shelves. Otherwise, the best bet for trying this product would be to order it online, through Mr. Miller’s website, which has a link to an authorized online distributor.

I bought a bottle each of the Kopper Kettle and the Virginia Lightning. The Kopper Kettle is smooth, with a slight sweetness and a subtle smokiness. The Virginia Lightning is somewhat medicinal, which may explain why Mr. Miller suggests flavoring it with fruit and sugar (he likes in particular to let it sit for at least a couple of weeks mingling with the fruit and syrup from a can of peaches). I’ll probably wind up doing something similar–it’s not a sipping whiskey. The Kopper Kettle most definitely is, though, and I look forward to enjoying it over a small amount of ice.

Belmont Farm Distillery is located at 13490 Cedar Run Road, Culpepper Virginia, and gives free tours Tuesday through Saturday from April through December.

Photo Credits: James Sharrard

6 Responses to “If it’s Legal, Is it Still Moonshine?”

  1. Johanna Says:

    I agree on the Kopper Kettle! I tasted a smokiness in it and thought it went down quite smoothly. Quite lovely!

  2. Troy Says:

    If you’ve got the time for a good read, I recommend “Good Spirits, A New Look at Ol’ Demon Alcohol,” by Gene Logsdon (The Contrary Farmer).

    It talks about making various forms of whiskey, wine, moonshine and other liquors even including a chapter on how to make alcohol fuel.

  3. Zil Says:

    If you can make yourself a cup of tea, you can homebrew beer - it’s really that easy once you have the supplies. And it tastes far better than the stuff you can buy in stores, fyi

  4. Chuck Blahut Says:

    I live near Chicago, IL. can you tell me where to buy your Whiskey?

  5. jwsharrard Says:

    No idea whatsoever, sorry.

  6. Rihanna Fur Jacket Says:

    use a still to make moonshine, no way around that…you can do without a still is something called fermentation and freeze it. Some of. be similar to vodka, if you started. aware this is legal in the US.

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