HARDIN, Ky. (AP) — Each batch of moonshine and the still it is made in comes with a colorful story that harkens to the beginnings of a unique trade. But the story of a 46-year-old still that made its inaugural moonshine Thursday is one of a kind.
Spencer Balentine, owner of Silver Trail Distillery, which produces LBL's Most Wanted Moonshine in Hardin, welcomed family members and friends to cook a ceremonial batch of moonshine from a still built nearly 50 years ago but never used. Alfred "Casey" Jones constructed the square-pot wagon bed-designed still in 1967 as a display piece for the Land Between the Lakes recreation visitors' center, where it stood for more than 30 years.
The still was replaced by a smaller model, and the original was moved into storage. When family members discovered the still was no longer used for display, they feared it would be stolen and the copper sold. Jones' grandson Arlon "AJ" Jones of Hopkinsville spend years completing the necessary steps to return the still, including acquiring consent from all living family members and providing proof the still was built by Casey Jones.
"The still has a piece of my grandfather and a piece of me with it," Jones said. "It's in my blood, our family knows how to build them, and we understand how they work."
He said his grandfather was a master craftsman of stills and revolutionized the process with the square-shaped, more mobile still. Casey Jones, who spent time in the Kentucky State Penitentiary for making moonshine, could make anyone a miniature still in three days, if provided with the materials, a place to stay, meals and $50, according to Jones.
After about five years, the still was returned to the family and Jones completed some necessary repairs, including adding a metal condenser and fixing several holes. The model was constructed in working order but Jones had to wait until the still could be moved to the home of Balentine, who has a distiller's license. Jones is working on the process to obtain his license and hopes to continue the family legacy of producing quality moonshine.
Family member Peg Hays described the transition of the moonshine business from days fraught with worry about visits from federal agents and stints in jail to the more legal, mainstream operation seen in the change from a wooden barrel to the more modern copper stills. She said Casey Jones' creation is a unique part of regional moonshine history.
"It's amazing to think a business that had so many problems becoming legal has now brought so many positive things like creating jobs and tourism opportunities," Hays said. "It's probably the only moonshine still in history commissioned by the government to be built."
Family member Jay Rogers of Calloway County said the moonshine produced Thursday was about 155 proof but would be tempered down to about 100 proof. He said the group expected about 15 gallons of moonshine from the still, which was working at a steady pace for several hours.
The cooking process includes combining corn, sugar and water into a mash, adding yeast, and waiting for fermentation. Then the distillation begins, which includes evaporating the alcohol, collecting steam and cooling it back into liquid form.
Balentine, who appeared on an episode of "Moonshiners" on the Discovery Channel this year, said working with moonshine intrinsically comes with many memories about family and the local area, seen in every detail from his 1950s family recipe to the Land Between the Lakes labels on the bottles.
On Thursday, as the first jug of moonshine from a piece made nearly half a century old was bottled, those in attendance cheered the past and the future.
"It's great to see the still that has never been run make its maiden run, 46 years after it was made," he said. "It's so important for moonshiners to stay true to our roots."
Information from: The Paducah Sun, http://www.paducahsun.com