In a barn on a hill in Marshall County, a modern moonshiner has turned what was once the art of outlaws into a legitimate business. Spencer Balentine is cooking up a batch of LBL’s Most Wanted (according to the label, anyway) Kentucky moonshine in a square copper pot still in the middle of his barn. Balentine says he’s carrying on a tradition that’s been in his family for generations. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all had connections to moonshining. Balentine says he decided to revisit the tradition a few years ago after a visit to a whiskey distillery. The visit brought up a 50 year old memory of a car ride.
“Butcher paper’s lining the floorboard, and of course the back seat was full,” says Balentine. “And what it was, it was 200 gallons of 100 proof that he had packed in with butcher paper, and my feet and my mom’s feet was resting on like a layer of jugs on the car floorboard.”
The memory of that ride comes back to Balentine every time he hears the clink of glass jugs knocking into each other. And it’s a sound he hears every day now in the barn. He was able to start his distillery after jumping through an incredible number of government mandated hoops. He says,
“You’ve gotta have your entire facility finished and ready before you file the first piece of the 188 pieces of paper.”
But the government regulations weren’t the only problems he faced. Carrying on a business that for years was by definition illegal has a few other problems. According to Matthew Rowley,
“Secrecy has always been a part of that, and sort of protecting the location of your still and when you are making a run and all of that was really closely guarded information. We tend to regard information as pretty open and readily accessible these days, but not so much then. People kept secrets even from their own families.”
Rowley is the author of Moonshine, a history of the practice and folklore of making the illicit liquors that have filled jugs for generations. He says all that secrecy means a lot of the history, even the modern history, could be lost. But some of it is still making its way back into the light. Balentine says,
“A lot of people in this area have heard about it, but really nobody knows anything about it. So what I started at was an 80 year old – it actually came from my mother’s side of the family – my great grandfather’s recipe. Which, he was a little bit Irish, so I’m giving the Irish credit for the recipe.”
Balentine says his great grandfather was one of a line of men in his family that carried on the tradition of making and running moonshine to provide for their family. He says he wants to keep up the practice because it’s a badge of honor for him and his family. Rowley says that’s a common sentiment, especially for southern moonshiners.
“One of the really powerful things about moonshining is it provides a sense of identity, a sense of belonging for people,” he says.
And that’s an identity Spencer Balentine takes very seriously. He cooks his whiskey with practice and care, following the recipe from his great grandfather to create the best batch of moonshine possible. He says,
“From day one I’ve tried to recreate at least the taste, and the smell. And by doing it on the historic still I think this is close as you’ll get to experiencing that, you know, that 1958 moonshine.”
But besides the trouble finding the perfect recipe to recreate moonshine, there’s a simpler problem with starting a legal distillery to preserve moonshine’s history. Moonshine is really just distilled alcohol. It’s the process of doing it without the government’s consent that makes that alcohol moonshine. Matthew Rowley says,
“…the moment that moonshine becomes legal, it stops to exist.”
So while taking a sip of clear, quality controlled, all taxes paid corn liquor from a jug may bring back the memories of running from the law and hiding in country hollows in the moonlight; it’s really not the same. In fact, the act of Balentine and others going the legal route for making their drink, could mean the end of the legacy they’re trying to uphold.