Shine On, Moonshine

Nestled in the countryside of beautiful Northern Virginia, about 70 miles outside the nation’s capitol, is one of the most unique and successful — and legal! — moonshine operations in the commonwealth and possibly even the country. From the small gift shop to the 25-minute tour, everything about the place seems pretty standard—everything, of course, except the moonshine, and the folks who make it.

Thanks to deregulation, Chuck and Jean Miller were able to finally get a special license to sell their one-of-a-kind spirit, paving the way for more than two-dozen other distilleries to open in Virginia. The Millers boast something few, if any moonshine operations, can: Everything from the grain to the glass is grown and produced on site.

One-of-a-Kind Moonshine

You might know a bit about Virginia moonshine from the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” — especially Tim Smith, who appears in overalls without an undershirt. The show is part reality, part entertainment and all moonshine. But what many viewers don’t know is the story behind the Belmont, the distillery that packages and sells Smith’s famous “Climax” moonshine.

Belmont Distillery produces and sells more than a dozen products. Corn mash is cooked according to a secret family recipe. After fermenting in copper tanks, it’s sent to an antique copper pot for distilling. (Constructed in 1933, at 3,000 gallons, the copper is still nearly the size of a compact car.) Large whiskey distilleries abandoned copper pots decades ago, so Belmont prides itself in continuing an age-old tradition. After another step that further distills and strengthen the alcohol content (or proof) of the product, it’s bottled and prepared for shipment.

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Everything from the grain to the glass is grown and produced on site at Belmont Distillery. | Photo: Nicole Russell

Kopper Kettle Virginia Whiskey is Miller’s signature; dubbed such because the corn, wheat and barley blend is distilled in the aforementioned antique vessel. To add to the flavor and texture, apple and oak wood chips are soaked in the whiskey mixture, before it’s aged. Miller also offers Virginia Lightning Moonshine, twice distilled in flavors such as cherry, peach and, more recently, butterscotch.

This is where Smith of “Moonshiners” enters the picture. Smith used to make his product illegally — which was the hook of the Discovery show. But he started making it legally and approached Belmont Distillery about producing and distributing his product for him. They happily obliged.

It’s hard to say if Smith’s television notoriety put Belmont on the map, or if Belmont promoted Smith by distributing his product. Regardless, it’s fair to say both help each other and anybody who comes to see the distillery will catch a glimpse through the free tour of Smith’s cardboard shirtless cut out, barrels of aging whiskey and the bottling process. Tastings are available as well for $5.

A Legislative Battle

Despite the commercial, retail and television success of moonshine and Belmont Distillery, it took considerable political effort to come this far. Chuck Miller had been making whiskey for nearly two decades and selling it through ABC stores.

In the late 1980s, Miller became the first legal moonshiner in the United States. But due to Virginia state law, he was unable to retail his product at his own distillery. It took special legislation in 2006 just to get licensed by the Virginia ABC board to sell his two main products, Virginia Lighting (real moonshine) and Cooper Fox (Virginia whiskey) at the distillery’s gift shop. The hook? The distillery is an “agricultural enterprise.”

Belmont distillery

Photo: Nicole Russell

County Supervisor Steve Walker suggested the idea and worked with Delegate Ed Scott, (R-Culpeper) to try to get the special legislation passed. Still, Scott was hesitant at first. He thought the ABC board might not be keen on the idea of selling hard liquor out of a farm house.

But as Scott told the Free Republic in 2006, “This was a small business that was growing and bringing in tourists, folks could come by the gift shop and buy T-shirts and mugs, but they couldn’t buy the product he was making.” Still, after discussing it with two other small legal distilleries in Virginia, Miller was under the impression it would be an impossible feat. ABC Board lawyers wrote the legislation, Scott introduced it, and eventually, to everyone’s surprise, the bill passed both Virginia houses easily and Governor Tim Kaine signed it.

Paving the Way

Now, a decade later, Miller is not only enjoying his success, but he’s also paved the way for dozens of craft distilleries and moonshine distilleries to operate, legally of course, in Virginia.

Miller’s hard work, advocating his grain-to-glass operation with lawmakers in Richmond, has also likely played a part in helping loosen regulations nationwide. Moonshine is now available in at least 13 states. And why not? Deregulation has proven good for Miller’s business and other up and coming distillers. Best of all, it’s good for patrons who enjoy that white lightnin’ burn.

Nicole Russell is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @nmrussell2.