MITCHELLS—Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper County proudly maintains the distinction of being the first legal moonshine-making operation in the United States.
It’s been 30 years since Chuck Miller, and his wife, Jeannette, crafted their first bottle of whiskey with corn from the farm in a Prohibition-era, 3,000-gallon copper still.
“We started it in 1988—that’s when we went legal,” the gregarious Miller said recently, his booming voice and laughter filling the gift shop/tasting room. “I said, well, darn, my grandpa made pretty good money selling whiskey, why can’t I do it? But I wanted to be legal because he’d come home with bullet holes in the car and I didn’t want that.”
The local distillery is completely legitimate, and its owners are admired locally and beyond. For its contribution to the farming way of life and for being a tourism destination, Belmont Farm Distillery last month was named the 2018 Agribusiness of the Year by the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce.
“We were totally shocked, didn’t know anything about it,” Miller said. “It means a lot to have the county support us like that.”
A former commercial pilot who also flew fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, the 73-year-old grew up making corn whiskey with his grandfather in the woods in Charles County, Md.
“He was a scoundrel—there’s his picture up there,” Miller said, pointing over his shoulder at a black-and-white framed image. “I used to go down there and work with him on weekends.”
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Miller’s grandfather died when he was in the military, and he figured he’d never make whiskey again. But when the airline he was working for went out of business 30 years ago, Miller decided to give moonshining a try to support his family, including four sons and a daughter.
He said he tracked down a forgotten, circa 1933 copper still in the woods in Nelson County, still in use today, and following a long regulatory process, secured approval from the federal government to start the first legal business of its kind in the country.
Jeannette thought he was crazy.
“But I went along with his ideas, he always has a lot of ideas,” she said. “He likes to keep busy.”
The distillery has been more than successful since, this year producing some 30,000 bottles of Virginia Lightning moonshine, made from the same recipe Miller’s grandfather used. Belmont Farm additionally produced 18,000 bottles of other spirits like butterscotch and apple whiskeys, bourbon, rum and vodka.
The relatively small operation makes and bottles 15 different products of its own, as well as Climax moonshine for Tim Smith, a star of Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners.”
The homegrown liquor is sold across the country and world. Belmont Farm employs about 20 people on a yearly basis, including son-in-law Jay Durkee, who took over as master distiller about six years ago.
“I was a civil engineer and then a business consultant and then he begged me and my wife said I had to,” Durkee said of accepting the role. “It’s nice not working for a corporation, and my engineering mind is still working, so I am always making things more efficient.”
The Miller kids opted not to join the distillery and have achieved professional success in their own right—two are pilots, one is a professor, another works for Walmart corporate and their daughter is a research scientist at the University of Virginia.
“They helped when they were younger,” Miller said. “They didn’t have any choice. They all got good jobs. I motivated them.”
People come from around the country and world for tours at Belmont Farm Distillery and to taste and purchase the products also sold by Virginia ABC. Since Miller opened his place, some 60 distilleries are now in existence statewide and about 2,000 nationwide, he said.
During a recent tour, he demonstrated how the moonshine is made, starting in a cook tank filled with water and a ton of ground corn until it boils. While that process is happening, yeast is prepared and mixed with the mash in a fermenter tank, where it sits for three or four days, bubbling and gurgling.
It’s then pumped through a hot still until reaching about 75 proof, put in another tank to get reboiled until it’s about 150 proof. The mixture goes through a copper coil condenser, where it turns back into a liquid and runs through more tubing until it runs clear.
“That’s the whiskey flowing,” Miller pointed out. “That is running about 80 percent, which is about 160 proof.”
The liquor is then stilled a second time to achieve a better product, he said. Virginia ABC requires the distillery to cut the whiskey down to 100 proof, before it gets charcoal filtered and sent through the wall to the bottling room.
“Oh, it’s good stuff,” Miller said.
One famous variety, Kopper Kettle, is trademarked as a Virginia whiskey to distinguish it from that “other guy” who makes Tennessee whiskey, he said. Asked the difference between his whiskey and Jack Daniel’s, Miller said it’s mostly hype.
“He uses Maplewood to age it, we use Applewood. That’s a big difference. His is sour mash, a teeny bit on the sour side, ours is a fresh mash,” he added.
Some of the Belmont Farm Distillery products are aged for years in white oak barrels, while the moonshine is trucked out fresh. The process of making moonshine has been around for hundreds of years, back to Jamestown, Miller said, and there are still guys making it in the woods to elude taxation.
The future of Belmont Farm products is increasing the whiskey’s presence in Europe. The Millers traveled to London and Berlin for business this year and are working on a distribution deal, requiring that they expand their operation with a second still and bottling operation, now under construction on the Culpeper farm.
One of their products is already sold in Germany, and another in Hong Kong as the business continues to boom.
A colorful painting with a message, “Prohibition is over,” decorates the back wall in the original bottling room. Miller laughed loudly while pointing it out.
“Of course, we’re still celebrating that,” he said.