New Distilleries Celebrate Wilkes County's Moonshine Heritage
Once illegal 'white lightning' now part of growing legitimate business
<p>“I couldn’t imagine a better business at a better time, and an opportunity like this only comes around once in life. I’m not worried about my investment.”</p>
Owner, Copper Barrel Distillery
Wilkes County has a long history of distilling, and until recently a lot of that involved producing and running moonshine illegally. The region’s best-known 'shine runners ended up becoming some of NASCAR's pioneer drivers, such as Junior Johnson. Today, with legal distilleries permissible, it’s exciting to see Wilkes residents, including descendants of some of the 'shine legends, sharing family recipes and traditions in the open. The area has also drawn new distillers who see the potential in Wilkes County and want to be part of its new spirits culture.
Call Family Distillers
Call Family Distillers is a family affair, led by owner/master distiller Brian Call, son of the late Willie Clay Call, a local farmer and former legendary moonshiner who contributed greatly to the area's heritage tourism efforts related to moonshining. The elder Call passed away in 2012 at age 73, and Brian and other family members continue his efforts to preserve this part of Wilkes County history.
“The family has a whiskey-making history all the way back to the Reverend Dan Call, back in the 1800s,” says Brad Call, who handles business operations. “Rev. Call was a Lutheran minister in Tennessee who also had a store, and he sold whiskey he made in a still behind it. He taught a guy people know today as Jack Daniel.”
In spite of the market of moonshines classified as neutral grain spirits, Call Family does it "right," using the old methods for a truly distinctive product. The company also uses traditional sour mash whiskey recipes that incorporate locally sourced white cornmeal. These are unaged products true to history.
“We designed and built all our own equipment, down to the 1,000-gallon wood mash barrels,” Call says. “We have a unique method, using direct steam distilling, [which is] native to Wilkes County. We are home to the largest direct steam injection system today. We’ve combined the old technology with the new.”
The distillery design also pays tribute to the past, showcasing Willie Clay Call’s legendary 1961 Chrysler New Yorker, his favorite 'shine-running car, and other memorabilia. Tastings are available at the distillery, and products are available across North Carolina, online and coming soon to other Southeastern states.
Copper Barrel Distillery
George Smith opted to open his distillery at the old Key City Furniture Plant, turning the factory’s former wood kiln into his center of operations and adding on a marvelous rustic gift shop. Smith, formerly with IBM, got his start with a Charlotte brewing club, which connected him to many inspiring people, including Bill Samuels Jr. at Maker’s Mark in Kentucky. Samuels became a mentor to Smith, introducing him to other master distillers and industry stalwarts at Vendome Copper & Brass, Independent Stave and others.
“I couldn’t imagine a better business at a better time, and an opportunity like this only comes around once in life,” Smith says. “I’m not worried about my investment.”
He tells of making a highly authentic, exceptionally smooth Wilkes County “white lightning" guided by master distiller Buck Nance, who has a long family history in moonshine whiskey. The corn and rye in the recipe are grown locally.
“It’s got all the qualities of bourbon, except those created by barrel aging,” says Smith. “I think it will do well when we start putting some in barrels at a future date.”
Nance designed the distillery’s equipment himself, including the distinctive method that directly injects steam into the mash, similar to a pasteurization process, which keeps the mash from burning and makes for a fully flavored whiskey.
Tours are available seven days a week. Both distillers' products are available in North Carolina, but expect broader Southeast regional distribution soon.