Necessity is the mother of invention. And, when it comes to Franklin County, moonshine.
Virginia’s Franklin County, about 250 miles from D.C., is known as the “moonshine capital of the world.” It isn’t the only place where you’ll find moonshine (which can actually be any type of liquor; the name reflects how the once-illicit booze had to be made by the light of the moon), but Franklin County might be the perfect place for it, partially because for a long time, the hilly landscape wasn’t perfect for much else.
“If you lived in this part of the country, you might have 75 acres, but maybe 4 acres by the creek were all you could actually farm,” says Linda Stanley, managing director of the Franklin County Historical Society. However, there are “cool springs, lots of good water, a lot of forests, and you could drive right along the road, and right over the bank, people could be making liquor and you wouldn’t even know. It’s a perfect place to make it.”
And people are making it. While moonshine has traditionally been a backyard (or backwoods) industry, more and more moonshiners have been stepping into the sunshine by getting licenses and opening legal distilleries. The following three distilleries celebrate the trade that was launched by the first Scotch-Irish immigrants who arrived in western Virginia and kept the area solvent during Prohibition, when Franklin County liquor was shipped in huge quantities to D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. The distilleries’ tastings, craft cocktails and behind-the-scenes looks are all keeping what Stanley politely calls “the local liquid industry” thriving — with no chance of getting busted. Says Stanley: “We’re still making money off of moonshine.”
Franklin County Distilleries
25156 Highway 220, Boones Mill, Va.; Fridays-Sundays, various times.
“When I was in 11th grade, I had to do a report in my government class about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and mine was on moonshining,” says Andy Lumsden, distiller for Franklin County Distilleries. “And I’ll never forget it, because my teacher told me that it wasn’t a true profession. When I got my first check from my legal distillery, my mom said, ‘I wish you could show him that now.’”
In addition to traditional corn and rye whiskeys and fruit brandies, Franklin County Distilleries also makes a rum and a two-year aged whiskey, all produced in the ways Lumsden learned from his family members, who made illegal moonshine. (Before getting his license and going legit, Lumsden carried on that family tradition; in 2013, he was convicted of possessing an illegal distilling apparatus. “I had ABC agents roll in,” Lumsden says, but the still was empty, since he had just finished a batch of corn whiskey. “They showed up about 12 hours too late,” he says. So Lumsden just had to just pay a fine and the cost of destroying the still.)
Lumsden uses traditional methods, but he’s seen major advancements over the years (though some things will never change).
“It is a pain in the butt with the laws. In the woods, you don’t do paperwork,” he says. “The actual production of the whiskey, the only thing that’s different for me is I’m inside and don’t have to worry about the weather. I don’t have to go out there and freeze to death.”
Lumsden doesn’t care for the clichéd caricature of the mountain moonshiner. “These guys working in the woods knew a lot more than people gave them credit for,” he says. “They’re true chemists. Just because a guy wears bib overalls and works in the woods, there’s this misconception that he’s this uneducated hillbilly. They’re some of the smartest men I’ve ever been around my entire life.”
Five Mile Mountain Distillery
489 Floyd Highway South, Floyd, Va.; Thursdays-Sundays, various times.
Five Mile Mountain Distillery owner Kerry Underwood wants to make sure his moonshine carries on another tradition: keeping the business as local as possible, starting from the ground up.
“We wanted to source our corn locally and encourage local farmers to plant the corn,” says Underwood, who started the distillery, located in an converted industrial building in neighboring Floyd County, in 2016. “We’re trying to do that with our barley, and slowly but surely we’d like to source everything from within about 100 miles of our distilleries.”
At Five Mile’s tasting room, you can sample both straight spirits and cocktails made with one of the distillery’s four products; the cocktails are to “open people’s minds a little bit” about what moonshine is good for, Underwood says. They blend a Moonshine Margarita with their basic Sweet Mountain Moonshine, a Five Mile Mule with their Elderberry Moonshine and ginger beer, and an Appalachian Mimosa with Lemon Ginseng Moonshine, triple sec, Meyer lemon and prosecco. “Not many people sit around and drink straight vodka. Well, some people do and they call it a martini,” Underwood says. “Our product can substitute anywhere a good vodka or a good rum would go.”
Underwood and his business partner, Pat Sisk, started distilling as a hobby in 2012. “A lot of input — solicited or not — from the old-timers told us what we needed to know, and we honed our recipe over time,” Underwood says. “The stories we’ve been told I’m sure these old-timers have never mentioned to another soul in their life, but because we were making moonshine they felt that kindred spirit and let us have some of their stories.”
Twin Creeks Distillery
510 Franklin St., Rocky Mount, Va.; Thursdays-Saturdays, various times.
“People see clear liquor and they think, ‘Golly, that’s moonshine. I don’t want any of that,’ ” says Chris Prillaman, owner of Twin Creeks Distillery. “But that’s far from the truth.”
Prillaman — whose family has been making moonshine in Franklin County since the late 1800s — oversees the distilling of Twin Creeks’ seven liquors, which include a corn whiskey, fruit brandies and a sweet mash rye that took a silver medal in the 2018 American Craft Spirits Awards.
Visitors to the company’s newly opened tasting room can sample the products — some of which are available only at the distillery — and get a lesson on how the liquor came to be. Twin Creeks has a small-batch copper still that’s used for some specialty spirits (everything else is made on-site but in larger stills). “People who come to wineries want to see how that wine is made,” says Susan Carter, Twin Creeks’ marketing manager. “We are really showing the history and the heritage of what it took to make these spirits back in the day.”
Prillaman, the business’s master distiller, knows exactly how they made the spirits back in the day — he learned his craft from friends of his grandfather, long before moonshine was legal.
“The one fellow in particular who took me under his wing, he was all about making craft spirits,” Prillaman says. “And once you get started making liquor, it don’t ever get out of your blood. It’s just something you gotta do.”