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Today’s North Carolina distillers are carrying on the legacy of their moonshiner forerunners, often using the same recipes that have been passed down through generations. The attribute that unites them

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Today’s North Carolina distillers are carrying on the legacy of their moonshiner forerunners, often using the same recipes that have been passed down through generations. The attribute that unites them

Where Spirits Soar: North Carolina’s Modern-Day Moonshine

Today’s North Carolina distillers are carrying on the legacy of their moonshiner forerunners, often using the same recipes that have been passed down through generations. The attribute that unites them all? You can taste the heart and soul put into every batch.


Southern Distilling Company — Statesville

More than a century ago, Statesville was the hub for more than 450 distillers transporting spirits across the Carolinas and beyond — that is, until the city was voted dry in 1903, more than a decade before the rest of the nation entered Prohibition. “All these years later, we’re here to put North Carolina back on the map as the historic distilling capital of the world,” says Pete Barger, co-founder of Southern Distilling Company.

Coming from the engineering and public health fields, Pete and his wife, Vienna, were interested in establishing a family business that was scalable and would grow revenue out of their 20-acre farm in Statesville. After learning about Kentucky’s whiskey culture, the Bargers embarked on a mission to build a 25,000-square-foot distillery in North Carolina. Today, the couple works with local farmers, sourcing many of their grains within a 20-mile radius of the city. They produce their own branded spirits — Southern Star Double Rye, Paragon Wheated Straight Bourbon, and Double Shot, a coffee bourbon cream liqueur — and do contract distilling for other distilleries and brand owners. “We have good relationships with all of our grain suppliers,” Barger says. “Knowing where our ingredients come from and the farmers who grow them makes our process more sustainable and it’s the best way to control our product’s consistency.”

The goal of their distillery has always been to highlight the state’s storied history in whiskey making — and they’ve done just that. Honoring the legacy of two local moonshiners who left their mark on North Carolina’s spirits industry, Southern Distilling Company recently became a producer of “Blair’s Last Run” and “Paw Paw Murphy’s Shine.” Bill Blair Sr. was one of the state’s best professional racers who ran moonshine for distilleries in the 1930s, while Paw Paw Murphy, a prolific backwoods distiller and moonshine distributor in the 1890s, was widely known for his corn whiskey recipe. “Moonshining is an important piece of the state’s history,” Barger says. “It’s so important that we not only remember that, but also that we make sure that those legacies are not forgotten.”


Copper Barrel Distillery — North Wilkesboro

Copper Barrel Distillery uses a steam-injected distillation system. Photography courtesy of Copper Barrel Distillery

North Wilkesboro earned its reputation as a moonshine hotbed in the late 19th century when its winding mountain roads were infamous for high-speed chases between bootleggers and revenuers. Today, the town offers visitors a different kind of thrill at its first legal distillery, Copper Barrel.

After a 12-year career working for a Fortune 500 company, George Smith entered the craft spirits industry because of his passion for the history, culture, and community surrounding moonshine. He began actively looking for a location for his distillery in 2013, and after doing site surveys in more than 10 towns, he believed Wilkes County was the best place because of the area’s rich history and natural resources. During a tour of the town with the mayor, he learned that Wilkes County was also home to an unexpected resource: moonshine folk hero Buck Nance. “Our goal is to make sure we preserve the heritage of moonshine here in the county and Buck helps us do that,” Smith says. “He invented the world’s first steam-injected distillation system, which Copper Barrell uses today.”

The distillery sources its fruit from local farms; tart cherries, black cherries, blueberries, and strawberries are staples in their moonshine product line. The company’s flagship is called White Lightning, which folks enjoy by itself or mixed with other cocktails. “Each batch is blended with water we extract on site from the crystalline-rock aquifer, so we don’t have to treat it,” he says. “That’s why it tastes like real moonshine.”


Try Willie Clay Call’s The Uncatchable moonshine at Call Family Distillers. Photography courtesy of Call Family Distillers

Call Family Distillers — Wilkesboro

Try moonshine flavors like strawberry at Call Family Distillers. Photography courtesy of Call Family Distillers

Apart from its notoriety for smooth-sipping whiskey, Wilkesboro became a prominent manufacturer of forbidden libations for other reasons. Dwelling in isolated mountain areas made it difficult to feed families if the land wasn’t suitable for farming or if crops failed, and Prohibition and the Great Depression accelerated the growth of the bootleg business. Since then, many locals have continued the traditions started by their ancestors, including seventh-generation moonshiner Brian Call, who learned from his late father Willie Clay “The Uncatchable” Call — a nickname he was given by revenuers.

The family’s moonshining tradition, though, goes back seven generations, to 1800s Lutheran minister Rev. Daniel Hutson Call. Behind his general store in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Rev. Call created his own brand of whiskey and famously taught Jack Daniels the art of distillation. After being persuaded to stop producing whiskey by a traveling preacher, Rev. Call sold the distillery to Daniels, and the whiskey trade was passed down through the generations. In 2014, Brian founded Call Family Distillers to bring his family business into a modern era.

Like Copper Barrel, Call Family Distillers uses steam-injection distilling. Photography courtesy of Call Family Distillers

“It uses the same recipe my father taught me,” Brian says of his moonshine, which is made with white corn meal — ground in a local mill — barley malt, wheat, and cane sugar. “We created several flavors, including apple pie, which is a best-seller; strawberry; and cherry, and we’ll soon be rebranding our whiskey as ‘The Reverend,’ named after Rev. Call.”

Traces of the Call family’s long-standing moonshining past can be found all over the Wilkesboro distillery: Walls are lined with photos of moonshiners and revenuers, shelves hold copper stills, and a tasting room features antique jugs on display. The distillery also houses three original moonshine-running cars that belonged to Brian’s father, which he would use to haul moonshine in the 1960s to destinations including Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Raleigh. “He ran moonshine out of necessity to survive,” he says, “and a conviction to be the best at it.”


Don Smith opened South Mountain Distilling in tribute to his family’s legacy. Photography courtesy of South Mountain Distilling

South Mountain Distilling — Connelly Springs

Many of the products at South Mountain Distilling have been made in collaboration with other moonshiners, including JB Rader. Photography courtesy of South Mountain Distilling

When gold was discovered in 1828 at Brindle Creek, prospectors flocked to Burke County in search of their fortunes. Don Smith’s distillery takes its name from the adjacent South Mountains, the 100,000-acre land and moonshine hub where he was raised. “My ancestors settled in the area in the late 1700s right before the gold rush,” Smith says. “They found a better and easier way to get through that time, which was by making whiskey, fruit brandies, and moonshine.”

Smith opened the distillery in 2016 in tribute to his family’s legacy. He wanted to make moonshine using generational recipes and to educate people about the history of bootlegging in the area. With the help of his great uncle Clyde Hudson, a former moonshiner, he learned the art of distilling and grew the business into a large-scale operation featuring an eclectic menu of more than 10 different spirits. “I remember going by my great uncle’s house and watching and learning the trade of making brandy and moonshine,” Smith says. “He knew the mountains like the back of his hand.”

Many of the products at South Mountain Distilling have been made in collaboration with other moonshiners, including JB Rader and Crazy Chuck from Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners series. “JB Rader’s Honeycrisp Apple Moonshine is undoubtedly our best-seller,” he says. “It’s made from sour mash moonshine and three Honeycrisp apple slices, with honey added as a sweetener — great for the fall.”


Sip a cocktail in a rocking chair at Old Nick Williams Farm & Distillery. Photography courtesy of Old Nick Williams Farm & Distillery

Old Nick Williams Farm & Distillery — Lewisville

“Coming to Old Nick Williams Farm and Distillery is like stepping back in time,” Ashlee Elliss says. “Our products are very similar to what would have been made on the farm a couple of hundred years ago.”

The original Williams distillery was established in 1768 by Col. Joseph Williams, a Revolutionary War hero in General George Washington’s army. It continued to operate until 1903 when the company was incorporated by the distillery’s namesake Nicholas Glen Williams. Prohibition forced the distillery to temporarily close a few years later, but the Williams family didn’t give up on their family’s legacy. Three centuries later, Ashley’s fiancé Zeb Williams, along with his cousin Matt, and their fathers, Van and John Williams rebuilt the distillery on the original farm. “We did an analysis on an unopened bottle of bourbon and compared it with notes that we found that were left behind,” Elliss says. “We’re hoping we’re as close to the original recipe as we could have gotten.”

Whiskey made at Old Nick Williams Farm & Distillery is as close to the original recipe as possible. Photography courtesy of Old Nick Williams Farm & Distillery

The distillery’s most recent addition, the Busted Barrel Cocktail Bar, also points to family history: “We chose that name because in the 1920s, when the revenuers came in, they broke and busted all the whiskey barrels,” Elliss says. “It’s a great place to enjoy the scenery on the farm.”

Today, the distillery is a producer of various liquors inspired by their family heritage, including ONW Carolina Whiskey, made from the family’s pre-prohibition recipe, Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged for about a year and a half, and Coattail Cinnamon Whiskey, aged with natural oak and cinnamon sticks. “We’re known for our old-fashioned, and you can choose any of our whiskey to go into it,” Elliss says. “It’s also got a little bit of simple syrup, which gives it a tad of sweetness, as well as some orange zest and a bourbon-infused cherry juice that we make in-house.”

This story was published on Sep 19, 2023

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.