This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, August 27, 2014.
RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers. He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.
There are a few minor differences, however. First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.
He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.
And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.
His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.
Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.
At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.
He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.
“I said, ‘There’s got to be something wrong.’”
He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.
Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.
“I said ‘I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. “He took the plunge.”
Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.
He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.
Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.
Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.
The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.
The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.
Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.
Then he ran the still for the first time.
“It was better,” Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”
Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.
The process starts with corn. And lots of it.
Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.
The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.
This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.
The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.
Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.
That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.
Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.
The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head” and into a copper line.
The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.
Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.
Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.
The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.
This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.
The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.
“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.
Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.
The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.
Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.
Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”
They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.
These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.
Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.
“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.
Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.
Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.
Freeman also is planning additional flavors — including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint — and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.