Modern Moonshine

Popping up across the state, craft distilleries are the latest hot trend, but there’s no escaping the history of Virginia’s original spirit.

Photo courtesy of Three Crosses Distillery

John and Michelle Davenport’s vision for Three Crosses Distillery in Powhatan was a local watering hole—a rural Virginia, spirits-centered version of the fictional pub on Cheers. Nice bar, comfy couches, tasty cocktails crafted from Michelle’s house-made liquor. (She is one of the few female distillers in the state.) Despite John’s family ties to South Carolina bootleggers—his Uncle Ed spent four years in prison for selling illicit hooch—“We weren’t really planning to make a moonshine,” he says, “but people flat-out told us, ‘No, if you’re in Powhatan County, you have to make a moonshine.’” Franklin County may have been the epicenter of Prohibition-era bootlegging, but Powhatan, close to major markets in Richmond, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, North Carolina, also had its share of illegal stills.

The Davenports are glad they decided to make “Route 13 Shine,” their unaged corn liquor.” They left extra headspace in the quart-size mason jars so people could mix in their own blueberries or apples, and every few months they host flavor-your-own events, offering a buffet of apples, peaches, pears, gummy bears, and Jolly Ranchers. The distillery’s pun-loving bar manager, Justin Adams, has created popular cocktails, including the So Refreshine, with muddled watermelon, cucumbers, and simple syrup, and I Never Mint-Tea Hurt You with mint and lemonade. “Moonshine is perfect for cocktails,” Davenport says. “It does have a corn flavor, but it’s fairly light when you don’t overproof it.”

Chap Osborne and colleagues with seized still in the 1920s.

Photo courtesy Tazewell County Public Library

Craft distilleries, like craft breweries before them, are hot. Across the country, the number of small distilleries rose by 26 percent to a total of 1,500 from 2016 to 2017. In Virginia, there are currently 61 craft distilleries, with 11 permits pending and more surely to follow. Many of those here in Virginia produce that unaged corn whiskey known colloquially as moonshine. 

Three Crosses Distillery’s Shineberry Lemonade.

Photo by Joe Dunn / Dunn Aerial Media

The history of unaged corn whiskey is as old as Virginia itself. Evidence shows that English colonists at Jamestown were making corn whiskey by 1620. In the decades that followed, farmers across the state converted agricultural products—rye, barley, and apples, but mostly corn—into distilled spirits as a way to condense and preserve them. When the British government and, starting in 1791, the U.S. federal government taxed the spirits, some farmer-distillers balked and sold their whiskey illegally, at times protected by the cover of night. They became known as moonshiners or bootleggers. During Prohibition—from 1920 to 1933 nationwide, but starting in 1916 in Virginia—when sale of all liquor was illegal, bootleggers flourished. 

They continued selling illegal, untaxed spirits after Prohibition ended, and some still do today. Since the late 1980s, however, more and more of these small-time distillers have gone legal. They fork over per-bottle federal excise taxes. They agree to sell their wares only through the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Authority, which takes 54 percent of the sales price and gives the distiller the other 46 percent.

Aging barrels at Belmont Distillery.

Photo by Chris Harris

Chuck Miller, who pioneered Virginia’s craft distillery movement by starting Culpeper’s Belmont Farm Distillery in 1988, was inspired by his grandfather. “Here I was farming and not making a lot of money and raising a lot of kids,” Miller says, “and I thought, ‘Doggonit, I’m going to do like grandpop did—pay my bills making moonshine.’ But I didn’t want to do it illegally. I didn’t want people shooting at me. Grandpop used to come back with bullet holes in his car. They never caught him, but they sure got close a couple of times.”

It took Miller a year to get government approval, but the farmer became a licensed distiller. His first product, based on his grandpop’s recipe, was Virginia Lightning, a 100-proof unaged whiskey made from corn grown on Miller’s farm. Sales were slow at first. “A lot of folks were nervous about moonshine,” Miller recalls. “During Prohibition, the government said that if you drink moonshine you’d go blind and all this other stuff.” But people soon looked beyond the negative propaganda, and the pull of history and local culture grew stronger.

Belmont Farm Distillery’s Virginia Lightning. 

Photo by Chris Harris

In 2005, Miller convinced the state government to pass legislation allowing for onsite liquor sales—essentially turning craft distilleries into mini ABC stores—and these days hordes of visitors drop by the Belmont Farm tasting bar to sample and buy Virginia Lightning and the distillery’s dozen other products. 

“Moonshine makes a great cocktail,” Miller says. “You can use it to replace tequila or vodka. We make a moonshine margarita that’s really good. I like it with tonic water and a twist of lime.” Miller’s favorite moonshine mixer, though, is a can of cling peaches in heavy syrup. He dumps that into a jar or pitcher of Virginia Lightning, chills it, and drinks it neat. “I don’t have a name for that one,” he says, “but it’s sure good stuff!”

Robert Bondurant, who runs Bondurant Brothers Distillery in Chase City, also had a grandfather, Jack Bondurant, who made moonshine and was shot at (and injured) by lawmen for illegally selling corn whiskey. Jack and his brothers Howard and Forrest—the notorious Bondurant Boys—ran liquor in Franklin County and were part of the so-called Great Moonshine Conspiracy trial of 1935, which drew national attention. The Bondurant Boys were the subject of Lawless, a 2012 movie starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and other Hollywood A-listers. “Basically, what I’m making is the same thing my grandfather and his brothers would have made on the creek bank,” Bondurant says. “I use the same type of old pot still. None of this fancy spaceship-looking stuff you see at a lot of these distilleries.”

Michelle Davenport

Photo by Joe Dunn / Dunn Aerial Media

Historical authenticity is Bondurant’s prime motivator. The third-generation distiller chose Chase City for its fine-tasting mineral-spring water. He built his distillery in a circa 1912 roller mill. “That’s what I like—the family history, the state history. When you walk in here, it’s like stepping back in time,” he says. “We’re keeping the old-fashioned way of distilling alive. There’s nothing fancy here. No computers. It’s all done by the turn of a gauge handle, watching a thermometer, and tasting and smelling the product.”

Bondurant makes what old-timers called “first-run sugar,” so after running a preliminary batch of whiskey, he makes another run using the same mash along with sugar. “Corn whiskey can be a little harsh. First-run sugar was traditionally considered a better-drinking whiskey,” he says. “My whiskey is a very easy, smooth drink. It doesn’t have any burn or bite. That comes from taking the time to keep it cold when you’re condensing the spirit. I also malt my own barley and add that to the grain bill, which gives it a sweet finish.”

Bondurant Brothers Moonshine with Sun Drop.

Photo courtesy of Bondurant Brothers Distillery

How does he drink it? “The way my grandfather drank it,” he says, “moonshine and Sundrop. We mix an ounce of moonshine with four ounces of Sundrop over ice in a nine-ounce glass.” If you visit the Bondurant Brothers’ tasting room, ask for Jack’s Favorite. 

“I take pride in what I do,” Bondurant says. “It’s a true artisan craft deal. It’s not like some of these folks who come and throw dollar bills at making corn whiskey because it’s popular. That’s technically not a moonshine. You’ve got to be able to tie into the history.”

Sometimes, the history is so strong it finds you, as it did with John and Michelle Davenport of Three Crosses. By chance, they chose to build their distillery and bar in Powhatan’s old Southern States building, once the region’s principle farm-supply hub. “A lot of these old-timers come in here and think it’s absolutely hilarious that, back in the day, they were coming here to buy corn and sugar ‘out the back door’ so they could go make moonshine in the woods,” John says. “And now we’re selling corn liquor legally out the front door.”

This article originally appeared in our Drink 2019 issue. For tips and recipes on making moonshine cocktails, click here

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