Chuck Miller not only speaks in the same Southern twang as Jed Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but he kind of looks like him, too. Dressed in a straw cowboy hat and a button-up shirt tucked into his jeans, the silver mustachioed farmer’s destiny, however, didn’t lie in black gold – instead it was in corn whiskey.
Along with his wife Jeanette, Miller owns Belmont Farm Distillery, where he produces a true American spirit: moonshine. The homemade corn whiskey is made in the Appalachian tradition using a recipe passed down from his grandfather, a real bootlegger who supplied thirsty flappers with the drink during Prohibition.
“We make it all the way from scratch, and we use the old time methods,” explained Miller, the master moonshine distiller.
Even though you can purchase Miller’s corn whiskey in stores throughout the country (and in some cases abroad), one can only get a true taste for the spirit by visiting the distillery, which lies off a dusty road about 15 minutes from downtown Culpeper, Virginia.
The couple’s distillery sits in the middle of a cornfield and was built using the remains of a church that burned down in the 1960s. The only leftover evidence of the building’s former incarnation is a pair of peaked doors that lead to the gift shop and the start of a distillery tour, which is open to anyone who passes by.
If your lucky, Miller himself will lead you on the tour. As you wind your way through the tiny distillery, he’ll spout off facts about the Prohibition-era copper pot he uses and allow you to take a big whiff of the drink as it’s being made (if you can handle it, that is). You’ll also understand why this drink became known as “white lighting,” a nickname given because it’s bottled straight from the still without any aging. This method was developed so that bootleggers – including Miller’s grandfather – would be able to produce the spirit quickly.
But just because Miller’s moonshine is made quickly doesn’t mean it’s made with any less expertise or enthusiasm, a fact that becomes immediately clear within moments of stepping into the distillery. Miller himself has encyclopedic knowledge of the drink.
“The first time corn whiskey was ever made was in 1612 at the Jamestown Colony,” explained Miller as he bounced around from machine to machine. “The settlers had the technology, and the Indians had the corn.”
As you’ll see on the tour, the resulting spirit is clear like a vodka and although it smells a bit like rubbing alcohol, it goes down smoother than many other whiskies. And even though the drink is technically a whiskey, this is one place that you won’t find on the American Whiskey Trail.
“We asked to be on the Whiskey Trail, but they didn’t think moonshine was suitable,” said Miller with a smile. “So if you see any of those Whiskey Trail people you tell them they’re missing a big thing!”
Tours of Belmont Farm Distillery are offered Tuesday through Saturday from April 1 through December 24. Groups of 12 or less depart every 15 minutes.
[Photo by Libby Zay]