by Sally Colby
There’s a two-barrel still in the tasting room at Broadslab Distillery in Benson, NC. It looks like a museum piece, but it wasn’t that long ago that a young Jeremy Norris was using it to learn how to make moonshine.
Benson is known as the moonshine capital of North Carolina, and Norris comes from a long line of traditional moonshiners. The most influential was his grandfather Leonard Wood.
“He said he used to make two kinds of liquor: one to sell and one to drink,” said Norris, recalling conversations with his grandfather. “They’d make a wheat bran whiskey to sell – something simple and cheap. For themselves, they’d take a five-gallon bucket of corn and soak it, then put it on the porch and cover it with a burlap sack to keep it moist while it germinated. Once the germination process was far enough along, they spread it thin on a piece of tin out in the sun to dry. Then they’d grind it up and ferment. It was so labor intensive that they only did it a few times a year.”
But the effort was worthwhile. Norris says that the ‘good’ whiskey has a distinctive smell and flavor. “It’s the smoothest 90-proof whiskey I’ve ever put in my mouth,” he said.
When Norris told his grandfather that he wanted to build a distillery, Wood asked what he wanted to make. “I told him I wanted something that would stand out, that wasn’t like anything on the market,” adding that his education in distilling came from his grandfather and some of the old-timers in the area.
“When I started in the business, it took me four years to get everything built, licensed and in the marketplace,” said Norris. “I had done some research on other distilleries in the state, and at the time, there were only a few. A lot of the brands are neutral grain spirits – they buy bulk alcohol and flavor and proof it. I figured if I did it from dirt to bottle and made a value-added commodity that was truly a craft product, I wouldn’t be able to make it fast enough.”
As he worked on an access road, constructed a building and worked on plans for his still, Norris started the licensing process.
Norris wanted to design a still that would honor the traditional stills in the area. “I took the two-barrel still and sized everything up,” he said. “It would be a 500-gallon still, proportioned like the small still. My granddaddy used to make the same kind of outfit in the woods. They built a firebox with cinderblocks and used tin to make a skirt around the still. They’d fire the still with wood. The concept is the same as for wood-cured tobacco – how it pulls the heat through the barn. With a still, the firebox is on one end and it draws the heat up and around the still before it exits out the exhaust.”
Norris recalls that when he made whiskey in his small still, he used flour and cornmeal to make a paste that had to be just the right texture to seal off the still so steam wouldn’t leak out. But the modern still at Broadslab doesn’t require any sealing. “There’s a stainless steel manway, an automatic agitator, pressure relief, steam temperature and liquid temperature gauges, and a pressure gauge on the back of the helmet,” said Norris, adding that he heats the still with LP but can also heat with wood. “It has all the bells and whistles of a modern day still, but it doesn’t have any plates, columns or packings. It’s just an all-copper pot still.”
As an experienced farmer and with ample land, Norris knew he wanted to grow his own corn for distilling. He grows white corn, the same kind that would be used for cornmeal or grits. He uses a four-row planter and plants two varieties in alternate rows to ensure good cross-pollination.
The corn is harvested at 16 percent moisture or below and stored over winter in bins prior to malting. “I soak it for a couple of days and let it swell up,” said Norris. “We do that as needed. Once the grains swell, which takes about a week, I keep it damp and moist and let it germinate. Then we turn on air and heat to dry it out, then toast it lightly.” Norris also grows barley and plans to add another malt house.
‘Legacy Shine’ is an original recipe, and it’s the whiskey Norris’s grandfather taught him how to make. “The reserve is the very same mash and distillate, its just aged in oak,” said Norris. “’Apple Shine’ is the same recipe and distillate and instead of proofing it down with water, I proof it with 100 percent apple juice and use organic cinnamon sticks. I don’t use any concentrates, syrups or artificial flavors or colors. Everything is natural with whole ingredients. When peach season arrives, Norris has plans for another distillate. “We’re doing so well with the Apple Shine, so I want to add an all-natural peach,” he said. “I’ll probably use the same recipe and infuse it with peach. I also want to get into making some bourbon that will age for at least two years.”
Broadslab also features two rums, which Norris developed. “The first thing I did was distill out some clear rum,” he said. “I got some spices and created about 40-50 different combinations, then taste tested each one and rated it.” In the end, he settled on a spice recipe that includes six all-natural whole spices including vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks.
Right now, Norris runs the still once a week, and has tracked 17 percent growth this year. “I’d love to run it twice a day, six days a week and be able to sell what the still can produce,” he said. “But I don’t want to get too big – I want to remain hands on.”
Although visitors to the Broadslab Distillery tasting room can taste handcrafted, legal moonshine, products must be purchased through the state’s ABC system. Norris says that the tours he conducts are helping to get the word out, and Broadslab has received positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp. “One tour group at a time,” said Norris. “I didn’t realize that power in that.”
by Sally Colby