For generations, our forefathers have been distilling whiskey from corn mostly hidden away from the long arm of the law. White Lightning...hooch...moonshine. Known by many names, 'shine-making has crude origins, distilled and sold in a lucrative backwoods business that deprives the government of their fair share of tax revenue. 18th century Scots-Irish settlers to the US brought with them methods for making whiskey without aging it, and these same recipes are still made in Appalachia today. Their illicit business is alive and well churning out clear distillates of questionable proof and quality. But nearly 30 years ago, one man began taking steps toward bringing this once elusive drink out of the woods and into our homes for us to enjoy without fear of recrimination, or even a bad reputation.
If you'd rather not chance it with prohibited bootleg but you still enjoy corn whiskey or a good craft cocktail now and again - and who doesn't? - you owe it to yourself to visit Chuck Miller of Belmont Farm Distillery - the man who started the movement toward legal 'shine.
Chuck and his wife Jeanette founded Belmont Farm Distillery on their farm in Culpeper, Virginia, carrying on a legacy left by his grandfather who ran illegal moonshine in his day up to northern Virginia and into Washington D.C. Chuck remembers his grandfather as a dairy farmer. “It took me a while to figure out what he was doing. He had a lot of milk tanks but only a few cows.”
Two generations later, as the mural in his bottling room attests, Prohibition is over! Armed with a higher education (you should see his state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system) and a pilot's license (he flew in Vietnam and spent some years as a commercial pilot for Eastern Airlines), Chuck spent years completing reams of paperwork and maneuvering through federal red tape. Getting the license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms took a few years, but in 1988 he became the first legal moonshiner in the United States.
In recent years the moonshine craze has really caught on, leaving the rural backwoods and making a splash in glitzy bars from Hollywood to South Beach. The fascination with moonshine has become so popular in fact, that the bootleg beginnings of illegal 'shine-making continue to make shows like Moonshiners a huge hit for The Discovery Channel, a reminder that much of the stuff is still made under cover.
With its recent popularity, one could easily see this as an overnight sensation. But like many trends, nearly thirty years of groundwork has been laid by Chuck for others to grab hold. He's inspired countless up-and-coming artisans and entrepreneurs, resulting in the recent rise of the Craft Distiller movement in Virginia and around the country. Today he's among just a handful of moonshine distilleries and 42 craft distilleries operating in Virginia alone.
Cooked with Love in a Copper Pot Still
If you visit Belmont Farm in Virginia, you'll get a catered tour from the man himself if he's around, which he usually is. Chuck is a likable guy with a signature look. You'll likely hear him before you see him in his cowboy hat and plaid shirt because he'll beat you to the hello.
"Hi, I'm Chuck Miller" he boomed with a grin and a twang the first time I ever met him back in 2005. He says the same to everyone he meets and calls himself Moonshine Chuck!
Belmont Farm's moonshine is distilled slow in a copper pot to preserve all of the aroma and taste of a fine fresh corn whiskey. Chuck continues the tradition of pot still whiskey production with his centerpiece copper pot still he bought back from the Feds. He says it's what gives his moonshine that unique flavor.
Belmont Farm is also the only distillery in the U.S. that grows its own grain. The Millers grow their own corn on the farm, harvest it, grind it, and distill it, all the way to the final bottling. And as luck would have it, any byproduct of all this distilling is eagerly consumed by the neighborhood cows, making it a sustainable agricultural enterprise. Farmers in Culpeper laugh recalling how their cows would come running when Chuck delivered corn mash from the back of his mufflerless old pickup truck. "They were some happy cows" he said with a grin.
Making Virginia Whiskey
It's hard to pinpoint the secret behind Belmont Farms' Virginia Whiskey. Maybe it's the apple wood Chuck toasts on a grill out back. I've often seen him cutting then toasting rounds of it over a fire grill like you would a hamburger. When he's satisfied with the char, he gathers them up in a giant teabag and submerges it in a vat of moonshine, the first step toward turning it into the amber-colored Virginia Whiskey. "It's the applewood that gives it the flavor" he says, "and I must admit, I like my own cooking!"
His 'cooking' is aged in oak barrels for four years, then hand selected in small batches to preserve its uniqueness. The result is a whiskey that's smooth and mellow, with a hint of that apple wood char from the grill.
Belmont's bottling room has grown by leaps and bounds over the years and if you visit on a Wednesday, you might get to see some bottling in action. Depending on the day, you may find them bottling their signature twice-distilled Virginia Lightning moonshine, Kopper Kettle Whiskey or Kopper Kettle Vodka. Belmont Farm also officially bottle's Moonshiners' Tim Smith's Climax moonshine. Chuck estimates that the distillery now sells around 10,000 cases - 120,000 bottles - a year.
The filtration room is next on the tour with that state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system I mentioned. He's proud of this technology and swears it helps make the moonshine so smooth. Around the corner is the cool and aromatic barrel room with long rows of oak barrels lining either side. Here is where clear moonshine is aged in oak barrels to become Belmont Farm's Virginia Whiskey. A larger barrel of Virginia Whiskey he's been aging for 25 years sits in the corner, just about ready for bottling, though he admits there's only about a half-barrel left. "We've been sampling it for quite a while now, so it's not quite a full barrel anymore!"
That sweet, fermented aroma in the air of the barrel room is the natural exchange from the soaked barrel wood evaporating into the air, or what Chuck calls the Angel's Share. "We get what's in the barrel, the angels get the rest." One smell of this room and you get a good idea what's ahead in the tasting room.
Up until a few years ago, the tour at Belmont Farm was fun, but largely a tease - leading you through the process of distillation, bottling, and barreling, only to end the tour at the Gift Shop, your thirst for tasting the goods left unquenched. But in 2014, after more paperwork, the government finally conceded and approved that missing piece of the moonshine tour. Now any tour ends on the right note with a proper tasting of Cherry or Apple Pie moonshine!
I had the pleasure of getting to know Chuck and his wife Jeanette many years ago and working with them through my former role as head of tourism for that area of Virginia. Belmont Farm Distillery is one of the most popular tourism attractions there, and visitors travel from around the world to see it, with good reason.
Culpeper and central Virginia is largely agricultural and Chuck's influence has helped to preserve and promote much of its agricultural heritage. He saw the benefit of agri-tourism for the entire community long before most people knew there was such a thing.
Chuck and Jeanette are genuinely nice people and welcomed me whenever I stopped by. But the day he invited me into the "test kitchen" at the end of a long tour was quite special.
"Lori, ya like homemade apple pie, do ya?"
Those early experimental concoctions of strawberry, peach, cherry, and apple moonshine were tested and refined - and I'm sure re-tested and re-refined - and eventually led to popular new product lines of flavored moonshine in 2014.
But the fun doesn't stop there. New for 2016 are Peach and Butterscotch flavors. Come on.... Peach!
The Legacy Lives On
The Miller family moonshine legacy continues today with Chuck passing on his knowledge to their new Master Distller, son-in-law Jay Durkee, who's bringing plenty of new ideas and products with him.
Chuck is also lending expertise (and licensing) to other celebrity bootleggers like Moonshiners' Tim Smith. You've no doubt seen Chuck on the show in one of his many cameo appearances.
He pioneered the recent wave of moonshine mania that shows no signs of slowing down and he clearly relishes the notoriety that goes along with the role. He was born to play it.
Today, after years of sheer grit, determination, and love for the business - the 25-year kind you need to affect a cultural change - Belmont Farm is the oldest craft moonshine distillery in the country. He and Jeanette have become celebrities, and new products like golden gin, vodka, and rum are flying off his bottling line with no end in sight.
I mentioned to him when we spoke recently that he must be doing well - I was seeing him on TV and everywhere these days.
He laughed. "As long as I don't see my picture hangin' in the Post Office, I'm doin' OK!"
If You Go:
- Belmont Farm Distillery is open seasonally, April thru November. But all of their products can be ordered online.
- The tour is FREE. Tastings are also available - up to 3 oz (or 1/2 oz each for up to 6 products).
- 'Shine On - Check out some new and unique craft cocktail recipes for your next get together!