Talk to a liquor distiller, especially one who focuses on a smaller-batch product, and you’ll hear much made of “heads and tails.” He or she is not referring to a coin toss, but rather the unwanted components of the distillation process. Removing the heads and tails leaves the “heart” and eliminates nasty-sounding compounds like ethyl acetate, ethyl lactate and fusel oils that, at best, impart a funky flavor to the final product. At worst? They can cause major toxic reactions in the body, ranging from a pretty nasty hangover to death.
Ever been told that drinking moonshine can make you blind? It’s said to have happened from imbibing liquor made in an uncontrolled environment where toxic substances might get mixed in with the heart. That sort of thing — and the occasional exploding distillery — is what gave moonshine a renegade reputation. It’s the domain of grizzled old farmers with giant firearms to match their oversized appetites for corn liquor.
Troy and Sons, a legit, licensed and local moonshine distillery, is “all heart,” says Troy Ball, mother of three and white whiskey (aka moonshine) maker. With her all-American-girl looks and soft smile, there’s nothing about this former Texan that hints at liquor distiller, let alone moonshine maker.
In speaking to Ball, however, one quickly gets the impression there’s not much she can’t do. Ball studied business at Vanderbilt University where she met her husband, Charlie, then went on to raise three sons, two of whom are special-needs. The eldest, Marshall, though he’s non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair, has (with Troy’s assistance) published two books, including Kiss of God: The Wisdom of the Silent Child which landed the family on Oprah in 1999 and 2000. Ball also co-founded Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin, Texas (now called the Johnson Center), a research center for children with Autism and other spectrum disorders.
Where then, does a career in ‘shine come in? When the Balls moved to Madison County in search of the proper climate for their boys’ numerous physical health problems, their new neighbors were fond of gifting them jars of moonshine, which the Balls promptly hid under the stairs. “We’d open it and smell it, and it would knock your socks off,” says Ball. “We were never really going to drink it.”
Eventually, a neighbor convinced them to try the booze, and Ball was immediately smitten. “It was actually really smooth, so I poured it for some friends and they loved it. It got me to thinking, ‘Why isn’t someone marketing a really high-quality spirit? This is American; it’s not Russian vodka — and it’s cool!’”
A real-good boot
Ball eventually became intent on producing her own ‘shine. After a long search for the perfect corn, she began experimenting, eventually yielding a product good enough for an old-timer to declare to her at a tasting, “that’s real-good boot!”
Part of what makes a “real-good boot” is a clean distillation that leaves nothing but heart, the best-tasting and purist part of the yield. Some distillers leave the undesirable byproducts of distillation (heads and tails) in their liquor along with the heart, creating more volume — but bigger, badder hangovers. “Yes, there are some poorly made spirits out there,” Ball says. “That’s one real danger in drinking moonshine from an unknown source.”
On the other side of the coin is the small-batch distiller that makes a craft product, rather than turning out massive amounts of cheap rot-gut to turn a profit. “We don’t want any of those bad flavor profiles showing up in our spirits,” says Ball. The first part of the heart-run of Troy and Sons white whiskey has a mellow flavor that’s reminiscent of melon and cucumber. Not necessarily what many people think of when a mason jar of moonshine surfaces. Many people are admittedly inexperienced in the matter, says Ball. “People are shocked by the smoothness of the spirit, and that it’s not rough-and-tumble.” The self-proclaimed experts tell her that what she distills is exactly the way that moonshine is intended to be.
Old-timers and experts can probably get behind the heirloom corn she uses for the base of her whiskey, especially when the word “heirloom” seems to be more of a food buzzword than a reference to family treasures. She uses Crooked Creek Corn, an open-pollinated, non-genetically modified American white corn, originally produced as “people corn,” as opposed to animal feed. The variety was most often milled to make corn bread, flour and grits; allegedly the corn is grown at one farm only, just south of Old Fort.
The Wong way
Given her commitment to small-batch quality and local ingredients, it seems appropriate that Ball has partnered with Oscar Wong. Wong is a former engineer with his own compelling story, including a former life as a nuclear waste remover. He now runs the Highland Brewing Company.
Wong met Ball when she was looking for a place that would facilitate the expansion of her distillery. Quaintly enough, Ball was previously making moonshine in a 60-gallon still in a little red barn that stands on the land where her corn is grown. Moving into the newly expanded Highland Brewery enabled Ball to get a bigger 2,000-liter still (roughly 10 times the size of the barn still) — and build a tasting room. (The Highland tasting room will open in late July or early August.)
One benefit of distilling adjacent to a brewery, says Ball, is that the sweet liquor mash made prior to the beer fermentation process can be used in distillation. In fact, when Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Calif., was quoted by USA Today about the growing trend of small-scale distillers connected to craft breweries, he cited Troy and Sons as an example. “It wasn’t pre-planned for that, but it probably will happen that way in the future,” says Ball.
Big versus right
In addition to the approximately 1,800 bottles that Troy and Sons will turn out on a weekly basis, the distillery is developing an oak-aged blonde whiskey, available by the end of the year. “The product that we’ve made so far is very smooth and a pale amber,” she says. Even people that don’t drink whiskey, she says, love it.
Troy and Sons will focus only on distribution to North Carolina for now; by the end of the year they will expand outside of the state to other major markets.” The distillery plans to add more stills, eventually. For a small-batch distiller, Troy and Sons has plans to go rather big, which seems consistent with the history of the family.
“We’re Texans,” Ball’s husband quips. Would you say that your motto is go big or go home, Xpress asks?
“It’s do it right or go home,” she says with a sunny grin.
Troy and Sons moonshine will be available in ABC stores this week. For more information, visit troyandsons.com.