Please give me a brief history of the company. How come you're making whiskey?
prior to Prohibition homemade whiskey didn't have a bad reputation
After moving to Western North Carolina from Texas eight years ago, I was introduced to my first moonshine whiskey by the local mountain people. Usually the product was very hot and high proof, so I never drank it. I kept hearing about the 'good' moonshine that was made by true artisan whiskey makers. Their whiskey rarely left home because it was made to be personally enjoyed by family and friends. In 2008, I was finally offered a jar of one of these fine spirits. I was shocked by how good it was. It was smooth and proofed just right. After sharing it with some girl friends, I realized that this 'keeper' kind of moonshine whiskey should have its place in the American beverage world. Why not make cocktails from an American product versus a Russian Vodka or a Mexican Tequila?
After validating that there was not a well made 'keeper' moonshine on the market, I decided that I needed to learn how to make it so I could bring it to market. I searched for the original artisan moonshine makers and learned from them. It took several years but I was determined to get it right.
Not all moonshine is made with care, not all moonshine is created equal. Eventually I mastered the art of distilling with my mountain whiskey mentors and along the way I discovered a rare heirloom white corn, Crooked Creek Corn, that had survived on one family farm east of Asheville. After testing many many batches, we were able to develop our own recipe using Crooked Creek Corn in our grain mix.
It was amazing really, because our product is made using this lost corn, our moonshine is most representative of historic whiskey that might have been made in the time of Washington and the founding of America. Today I am joined by my husband and master distiller, Charlie Ball, as well as partners with brand building experience, and even a film and music industry guru. We've done our best to dot all of the Is.
Moonshine and corn whiskey are coming back in to vogue - what is the drink's history?
All historic whiskeys that came from the eastern part of America were commonly made from corn. Corn was grown on nearly all family farms and thus was readily available for whiskey making. In the Appalachian Mountains corn whiskey or moonshine was produced on the majority of the farms.
Why did it have a poor reputation - or did it?
In the early days prior to Prohibition homemade whiskey didn't have a bad reputation. Along with the restrictions of Prohibition came the desire to turn a quick profit, which led to poor distillation practices. The great demand for quickly made whiskey in great quantities drove the use of virtually any equipment to be converted into stills. The use of lead sauter and radiators, as well as a failure to cut the heads or toxins from the whiskey led to disastrous results in some cases.
What's the attraction now?
TB: Moonshine is mysterious, authentic and cool. It is also the true American spirit. Those that are drawn to craft beers, fine wines, and local foods clearly find moonshine an interesting whiskey, especially when it is made using a rare heirloom corn. When made in its highest state, as a 'keeper' moonshine, this spirit is unsurpassed in its mixability. Rather than being stripped of flavor, its natural sweetness and fruity character enhance any flavour that it is mixed with.
The world has a pretty negative view of your region - hillbillies, rednecks etc etc. The truth is different. Does the craft distilling industry in your states play a role in showing another side to a beautiful part of the world, the Blue Ridge mountains, Appalachia etc?
Unfortunately the media in the 30s and 40s did a lot of damage to the image of the Appalachian people, most of which were of Scots/Irish descent. Of course, there are those that are under-educated and poor, which the current governor Beverly Perdue has worked diligently to serve. The truth is, the local mountain people are often kind, generous, fun loving, and respected in their communities.
I worked side by side with many local people learning the craft of spirit making and found them to be spirited and kind hearted. There currently is an influx of baby boomers moving to this area, planning to retire in one of the most beautiful regions of the country. Prior to Prohibition North Carolina had the largest number of licenced distilleries in the country, now there are only four of us in operation. You can imagine the amount of local knowledge that existed from the old distilling days.
How important is heritage and provenance to your whiskey story?
TB: It is very important. We can thank those early immigrants for bringing their distilling knowledge to America!
Do you see lots of new distilleries and in your view, are they all doing a good job or is there a danger of a new generation of bad guys?
There is large growth in the craft distilling field in America at present. Fortunately the craft beer and wine industries have done a great job of educating the consumers about finding authentic well made brands.
There are some mirco-distillers in America that call themselves craft when in fact they are really bottlers, repackaging neutral grain spirits, and other industrial spirits. Hopefully the public will be smart enough to know the difference. This is a point of contention among true craft distillers.
Obviously many people are getting into the field in hopes of making a fast buck, but most fail to understand the amount of work and capital needed to build fine brands with staying power. Those individuals that think you can build a successful distillery and brands with small stills and little marketing dollars will be shocked to learn how fast they can run through their resources. In our particular interest, of making historically correct American spirits, we dislike those that ACT as if they are doing the same thing. In fact those distillers that say they are making moonshine whiskey and in fact are putting neutral spirits in a bottle, or poorly made product on the shelf, are damaging the industry and the consumers understanding of well made products.
Rarely will a consumer go back and try another brand once they have been stung by a poorly made product. I truly believe that the great craft distillers in America will be game changers in the end. Our products are better made, cleaner, and more flavourful than many of the mega brands that come off the same continuos distillation column stills.
What is blonde whiskey?
Blonde Whiskey was created by me and is made to be a softer, kinder, smoother and gentle whiskey. I think of Blonde Whiskey like the air in the Blue Ridge Mountains, full of gentle light, soft, and embracing. This is a whiskey that was created for those with a discerning palate, to be enjoyed and savoured by both men and women.
Blonde Whiskey is smokey with vanilla oak overtones, and has already converted many die hard whiskey drinkers who find the smoothness astounding. Blonde Whiskey is made exclusively by Asheville Distilling Company, one of only four distilleries in America owned by a woman.
Are we seeing craft distillers in the USA taking whiskey in to new and exciting areas?
Without a doubt the craft distillers in America are changing the game, creating whiskeys using unusual grains, heirloom grains, and different ageing techniques. We have experimented with using Cherry wood charcoal filtration, honeycombed barrels and of course, numerous rare grains such as Turkey Red Wheat, and Abruzzi Rye. Thinking outside of the box is the name of the game.
Is this trend here to stay?
TB: I do feel that there will continue to be growth in the craft spirits industry, especially in the near term. However, I won't be surprised if we see a lot of used equipment come on the market, as many find the cost and work taking its toll on the want-to-be brand builders. Very few of the start ups out there have any idea about business, marketing, publicity, finance, and distilling, all necessary for success.