Photo by Rebecca D’angelo
Story by Genevieve Rajewski
At Belmont Farm, a long dirt road winds through a sea of towering cornstalks to a small, rustic building tucked behind a barn. Inside, a tall, sinewy man wearing a straw cowboy hat and knee-high rubber boots loads a round-bottomed still to make another batch of “corn likker.”
“This building has a lot of spirit in it—in more ways than one,” Chuck Miller says of his distillery, which he built with the remains of a church that burned down in the 1960s and never reopened. “I figure the preacher must have given one hell-raising sermon that day.”
Although he looks the part, Miller is not your grandfather’s moonshiner—or even his own grandfather’s. Miller’s grandfather once craftily evaded authorities to sell his homemade corn whiskey, but the younger Miller instead used his wits to build a thriving, legal moonshine operation.
Miller did not start out wanting to make corn whiskey. In the 1970s, when he and his wife, Jeanette, bought 140 acres in Culpeper, Va., they raised thoroughbreds and beef cattle and harvested hay and corn as a side business to his work as a commercial pilot.
Then, after a couple of years, the Millers decided to try winemaking, but that proved short-lived. “Man, those grapes, they were a lot of work,” recalls Miller, whose voice has a Southern twang, but whose words clip along as quickly as a New Yorker’s. “For four years, I hoed, I pruned, I tied. Then I got to thinking, ‘My grandfather used to make whiskey out of corn.’ ”
Moonshine is fresh whiskey bottled straight from the still, without any aging, usually hastily because it is being produced illegally. The name derives from the fact that moonshiners often would work at night—or by moonlight—to avoid detection. Miller’s grandfather made the “white lightning” in Virginia and sold it in Washington, D.C., during Prohibition, and relatives regaled the young Miller with tales of his illicit adventures. “One day they were going to get him for sure,” Miller recounts. “But he just ran through the dang-gone roadblock and shot out the back window.”
Miller procured his grandfather’s whiskey recipe from one of his former drivers, Great-Uncle Johnny, and set about securing licenses from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “I thought he was crazy,” Jeanette remembers. “But he applied for the licenses, and when he got them, I was shocked.”
Once that two-year, paperwork-intensive process was over, Miller needed a still. He got wind of a copper-pot still recently discovered on a mountain outside nearby Charlottesville, Va., and bought it from the property owner for the cost of the scrap copper. The still was made in New York City in 1933—the year Prohibition ended—and Miller says the registration number shows it was in use until about 1960, then disappeared.
Moonshine may evoke romantic images of bootleggers delivering hooch to parched flappers during the ’20s, but the illegal activity persists today. Modern-day moonshiners sell their product to after-hours clubs along the East Coast, and the authorities—locally referred to as “revenuers”—hunt down the tax evaders and routinely bust up stills in Virginia and other states. “I figured if they’re just going to axe another one, why not let me get it?” Miller says of the antique still he saved from destruction.
Moonshine, like other whiskies, is made from grains—usually some combination of corn, barley, rye or wheat—that are ground up and mixed with water, then cooked, mixed with yeast and malt and left to ferment, creating a mash. When boiled in a still, the mash vaporizes and rises into a condenser, where it cools and becomes liquid.
Today, most whiskey distilleries use towering, highly efficient column stills that allow for a continuous flow of mash over steam-generating plates and never need to be stopped and emptied. In contrast, Miller still loads one ton of mash into his 2,000-gallon still for a process that takes five days from distillation to bottling. Between each batch, he empties the slightly alcoholic spent mash (which he says his cattle happily consume). “It’s the antique way of making whiskey, so it’s not efficient,” Miller says. “But what the old pot still does is allow you to keep a lot of the flavors and aromas that would escape otherwise.”
He then cuts the whiskey from 150- to 100-proof—which initially presented a challenge. According to Miller, the farm’s limestone well water makes a flavorful mash, “but if you were to try to cut the whiskey with that water, the minerals would cloud the whiskey and possibly ruin the taste.” Although Miller knew nothing about water purification, he picked up a system, once used to purify water for hemodialysis, at a University of Virginia Hospital auction. “I got it for a song and a dance and now have the cleanest water around,” he says.
Miller’s Virginia Lightning moonshine looks like vodka, smells like a nose-hair-singeing sake, but goes down smooth—smoother than some whiskies and bourbons. It tastes slightly tart, with a hint of earth or corn, and has no harsh burn. The Millers like to describe it as something between grappa and tequila.
In 1989, the Millers began selling Virginia Lightning in state-run liquor stores. “Our first order was for 300 cases,” recalls Jeanette Miller, who manages the distillery’s marketing and bookkeeping. “A newspaper article came out right before it hit the stores, and everybody had to have a bottle.” Every liquor store in the state promptly sold out.
Soon, Belmont Farm Distillery branched out into neighboring states under names more palatable to the locals, including Carolina Lightning, Kentucky Lightning and Tennessee Lightning. Maine, for some reason, embraced Carolina Lightning, which Miller jokes “must be cheaper than fuel.” And a liquor buyer began importing bottles into Japan under a special label that says “Virginia Bootlegger” in Japanese.
In 2002, the Millers launched Copper Fox whiskey—corn whiskey flavored with chips of apple wood and oak and barrel-aged for two years. They sell about 25,000 bottles of their moonshine and whiskey a year to people of all backgrounds and professions. Some have enjoyed moonshine in the past and are thrilled to have found a quality source, while many more have long been curious about moonshine but either afraid to sample the illegal variety or unlikely to ever encounter it in the first place. Both of the Millers’ products are produced onsite, with the help of a small part-time staff, and sold to locals and tourists at the farm and through liquor stores.
The whiskies weren’t always sold onsite. After the History Channel broadcast a program on their operation in 2005, the Millers opened an information center and began offering distillery tours from April through December, the months the farm is in operation. The distillery draws about 10,000 visitors a year, including day trippers from Virginia, as well as tourists from numerous other U.S. states and countries such as Australia, England, Germany, Holland, Japan and Scotland.
But the gift shop—which did a steady trade in Virginia Lightning T-shirts, shot glasses, caps and postcards—conspicuously lacked bottles of moonshine. Selling the whiskey onsite was illegal, and again, rather than following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Miller set out to change the system.
“Chuck came to me and said, ‘My business is growing, but I’d like to take the next step,’ ” says Ed Scott, who represents the 30th district in the Virginia House of Delegates. “One of the ways Virginia’s wine industry has grown is by offering a form of agritourism, where folks can visit the winery, sample the wines and, through that process, become customers.’ ” Scott, who has known Miller and admired his persistence for years, collaborated with the Virginia alcohol-control board to draft legislation that would allow distilleries to sell their wares onsite. The Virginia General Assembly approved the bill—which applies only to distilleries that produce their own grain and does not allow for onsite tastings—and the governor signed it into law last April.
“This is the first time anyone has been able to sell whiskey off the farm since George Washington sold his rye whiskey at Mount Vernon,” Miller beams. His pride is evident as he cradles souvenir bottles in his lap and carefully signs them “Best of Luck—Moonshine Chuck” at guests’ requests.
Still, Miller respects backwoods distillers, many of whom he says have passed on their craft for generations. “It’s a forgotten art,” he says. “So I figure if I do this legally, I’m kind of preserving a piece of America.”