Disabuse yourself of the notion of moonshine whiskey as a fiery beverage that goes down hard and sits harder in your gut, served up out of a mason jar. That’s bad ‘shine, not good whiskey. The proverbial good stuff was smooth, made with the best corn, a fine sipping liquor, if you will. Troy Ball, of Troy and Sons distillery in Asheville North Carolina, gets that. She’s not alone among the new breed of artisan distillers making something clean and flavorful, but she stands out. And with her Nashville ties, including quiet partnership with legendary music producer Dub Cornett, she’s aiming her product straight at Music City. Of course, you don’t have to be from Nashville to buy it, and love it. I suspect it will go over just as well in Seattle and Nantucket. But there’s a special connection between this Asheville whiskey and Nashville.
From Texas, Troy came to study at Vanderbilt, and loved the city that brought her back again and again, even after her marriage to Charlie Ball and three children. In college she earned a business degree and ran the Vanderbilt Hustler newspaper. Accepted to grad school at Vandy, she ended up returning home to work in the family business.
Troy and husband Charlie moved their family to Asheville in 2004. Two of their sons have disabilities, and the climate proved much better for them (the extraordinary oldest son, Marshall, in his 20s, has made a remarkable career for himself as a writer). The Balls’ real estate business suffered the same trials that the whole industry did in 2007 and 2008. To deal with the stress, Troy developed a new interest – distilling.
In 2008, an 80-year-old man told her about the “real” moonshine whiskeys made at home, and about the differences in taste. Intrigued, Troy took herself off to the state archives, reading about the fellas back in the day who were well respected for their quality liquor. Prior to Prohibition, North Carolina had the nation’s highest percentage of distillers; today, it’s limited to artisans here and there. Troy set out to find the guys who still knew what it took to make the good stuff, and decided that she wanted to try it.
Enter John McEntire, seventh generation corn farmer, still somehow producing a rare white heirloom corn dating back to the nineteenth century (once, white corn was for eating, yellow for the livestock). “John is the loveliest man ever, kind, jolly, just terrific,” declares Troy. And his corn really is the be all and end all.
The Balls took some of McEntire’s heirloom corn to the University of Tennessee for analysis. “They shucked the corn and ran it through their machines,” she says. “Their eyes got real big. They asked to do another ear … they’d never seen a corn like this.” Higher in fat, lower in starch than modern corns, this heirloom seed had survived on McEntire’s farm for more than a century, while time and big corporate hybrid corn after 1945 passed it by.
“We use it in all our batches mixed with other white corn, we can’t grow enough. It won’t take the heat and grow elsewhere, it needs the Southern mountains.” And with the help of her research, John McEntire’s corn, the support of her husband Charlie (now the master distiller), in the midst of a recession, Troy Ball became the only woman in the country with a distillery making whiskey on her own.
Dub Cornett, producer of Americana music extraordinare and collaborator with the likes of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and other category defying Nashville artists met Troy through friends in Nashville early in the process. The two hit it off, and Cornett became supporter, cheerleader and then partner. He recognized at once the need to take a “high brow approach to a ‘low brow’ product.” He reasoned that here would be plenty of folks working to make “grandpappy’s whiskey.” The goal of Troy and Sons would be to do it really, really right.
Cornett, a native of Virginia’s Appalachian mountains was soon traveling regularly to Asheville to visit family, and dropping in on the Balls, listening as Charlie Ball moved from saying “you all are crazy” to talented distiller along with his wife.
“I just feel lucky to be part of it,” says Cornett modestly. But he promotes the amazing whiskey like crazy, helping to get prominent placement for it on TV and in film. “He’s wonderful,” says Troy, simply. But Cornett is the product’s biggest cheerleader, and his collaboration has clearly been invaluable.
“[Troy] making whiskey is the same as someone writing and singing a great song. She’s not someone who just decided to do it, she’s what quality is all about,” says Cornett. “Allan Benton is the same thing with his bacon. And it’s a sustainable business, we wanted to be the Tom’s Shoes of booze.” For Cornett, the best of Southern and “hillbilly” have made something classic.
Before long, Margaret Lipman of Lipman Brothers, our oldest local spirits distributor, was calling, after a promising note on Troy and Sons in Garden & Gun. The Nashville tie deepened, and Lipman is now “almost like family.”
Troy and Sons currently offers both their Platinum Moonshine (use it like you’d use vodka) and bourbon barrel-aged aged Oak Reserve moonshine whiskey – extraordinary spirits both. Made with John McEntire’s Crooked Creek white corn, mountain spring water and a whole lot of effort, only the 50% of the distillation makes the bottle – the toxin filled head is discarded, as well as the end run, and with it the burn that makes harsher moonshine. Just the heart of the run is used, producing a drink so smooth bartenders can’t believe it. There’s a reason this is the first ‘shine ever to appear on Disney’s properties, among other prestigious sites.
If you haven’t tried Troy and Sons yet, you’re in for a treat. Sip well, Nashville. Sip well.
Find out more at http://www.troyandsons.com