Franklin County, known as the “moonshine capital of the world,” 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 (the name reflects how the once-illicit booze had to be made by the light of the moon) 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.
Franklin County Distilleries
25156 Highway 220, Boones Mill; 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.
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.”
Five Mile Mountain Distillery
489 Floyd Highway S., Floyd.; Thursdays-Sundays, various times.
Five Mile Mountain Distillery owner Kerry Underwood wants to keep 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 a 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 straight spirits and cocktails made with one of the distillery’s four products. “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.”
Twin Creeks Distillery
510 Franklin St., Rocky Mount; 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 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 products 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.”