Moonshine Trail looks to get tourists’ eyes on eastern Kentucky through local history, culture
Bourbon is traditionally considered Kentucky’s signature spirit. But a group of distillers are looking to get more eyes on eastern Kentucky by focusing on the cultural and historical value of moonshine.
For bootleggers, distilling and selling moonshine was a way to make a decent chunk of extra money on the side during prohibition. Nowadays, you can find all different types of “white lightning” in stores.
The Moonshine Trail involves seven distilleries and four other landmarks across eastern Kentucky. They’re organizing the trail to try and get the eyes of tourists exploring the hills and hollers of the region.
Ben Pasley is the CEO of Mt. Folly Enterprises, the Winchester-based agricultural business which is heading up the trail. They’ve been able to use money from the American Rescue Plan Act marked for travel and tourism to get it up and running.
“We have a little more than $300,000 that we're going to be spending on the Moonshine Trail and the seven participating distilleries and tourism committees in their respective counties,” Pasley said. “That's going to go directly to connecting customers with these rural parts of the state.”
The practice of making moonshine caught the ire of law enforcement, but for many it was a means of survival.
“It was a way to literally put food on the table to provide for a family where there wasn't a lot of opportunity, especially when you're talking about recovering coal communities,” Pasley said.
Pasley says the whole thing has an “outlaw country” sort of feeling.
“The term moonshine, you know, that's more of our language of our people,” Pasley said. “The federal government doesn't have a legal spirit definition for what is a moonshine.”
But generally speaking, there is a basic definition for what most people consider the spirit to be.
“Moonshine can really be anything that is unaged off of a single plate,” Pasley said. “So the plate is in the column, you have your pot where the mash and the liquid is, and then that vapor goes up, hits that plate and then turns back into a liquid.”
The trail starts at Lexington’s Barrel House Distilling Company. Andrew Tyma is the company’s head distiller. He says from a production standpoint, much of the appeal of making moonshine comes from experimentation.
“You can make apple pie moonshine or blackberry moonshine,” Tyma said. “You can age it and use bourbon barrels or whiskey barrels or maybe use completely different recipes to come out with completely different moonshine.”
Barrel House is also part of the Bourbon Trail. But Tyma says there’s a pretty noticeable difference between the craft bourbon makers and what you might find from the eastern Kentucky distilleries.
“When you think of the Bourbon Trail, you think of these massive distilleries that sell bourbon all throughout the country and all throughout the world,” Tyma said. “And then when you go start on the Moonshine Trail, you're gonna go see these family owned operations that might be in one little room and in one building.”
On the other end of the trail is Kentucky Mist Distillery, deep in the heart of Appalachia in Whitesburg. Its owner, Colin Fultz, comes from a long line of moonshiners. His grandfather sold the moonshine that other members of his family would distill.
“It just kind of intrigued me that he was in jail so long over it,” Fultz said. “And then he actually was in Atlanta, during the time that Al Capone was there. So you know, it’s just interesting. That kind of got me into it.”
Fultz says that family history led to teaching himself how to make the drink. Today, he has his own way of distilling based on how his family did back in the day.
“Years ago, the alcohol was so rough,” Fultz said. “They couldn't distill it as clean as we can distill now. So it had a lot of impurities in it. And the taste wasn't great. So they would add fruit to help make it more tolerable.”
As the trail takes off, Pasley says he’d like to expand it to include more states, each with their own brand of moonshine and their own take on Appalachian culture. He also wants to become a resource to help people set up their own legal distilleries across the region.
“We want to make sure that we share Kentucky's moonshine heritage, predominantly right now,” Pasley said. “And then we'll look at telling other stories in other states.”