Capitol Street moonshiner Jeff Arthur is a prophet without honor.
That phrase is credited to Jesus, from the gospel of Matthew: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” Some might find Christ’s words in conjunction with a moonshine maker offensive, though Jesus did turn water to wine. Arthur didn’t solicit the comparison, but judged strictly by who he sells his hooch to, the concept is applicable.
Now two years into owning Mountain State Distillery, Arthur guesses only 25% to 30% of his sales are local. Well then, he sells to out-of-state folks, right? Yes, but not over the internet. West Virginia is one of many states that prohibit direct internet liquor sales to customers. The only way to get a bottle of his moonshine or whiskey is to enter his store.
For every bottle of product he sells — out of a space for which he pays $2,500 a month in rent — he forks over 2% of the profit to state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, which in turn distributes those funds to all official liquor stores in the “market zone.” You know, mom-and-pop operations such as Walmart and Walgreen’s.
“I get to pay Walmart every month,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult. The state is making it easier and easier to make the decision to get out of this industry. Walmart is getting a royalty check for doing nothing.”
For whatever reason, local folks have not made a stampede to spirits. His store, though nestled in the stately Empire Building and boasting beautiful cornices and molding, is not often packed.
Arthur’s business comes mostly from what he calls “tourists.” He has the pins to prove it.
A U.S. map is dotted with markers from around the country, signifying customers. They see his handsome website, notice his stellar ratings on TripAdvisor and Google, and find their way to the corner of Kanawha Boulevard and Capitol Street.
TripAdvisor rates Arthur’s distillery as the second-best in West Virginia, two spots ahead of the larger and more established Smooth Ambler in Lewisburg.
“Even though apple pie [moonshine] was sold out it didn’t stop the owner from going above and beyond to help us find something new before closing,” a TripAdvisor review reads. “He is passionate about what he does and it shows through his product.”
One couple stopped in Charleston two days before the referenced apple pie brand was set to launch. They had waited six months since their last visit and figured the product would be ready. It wasn’t, but Arthur sold them some early.
“It was the only reason they were staying in Charleston for the night,” he said. “They went back to Ohio with a positive experience. They stayed at The Four Points Sheraton and had dinner. For them to want it that bad, to stop and get it, made me feel good.”
Arthur plies his trade quietly. His workspace is a cluttered room behind a gorgeous counter area. It is there he mixes the corn, sugar and water, to soak for seven to 10 days. Any water not soaked up by the corn is siphoned off the top with a pump. Then the batch goes into two stills, one called a “pot,” the other a “reflux.”
The reflux yields a much more potent stew because it runs through a series of four steel plates, each with holes in it. Less purified alcohol condenses under the plates and doesn’t pass through, but the purest of the batch does. This method yields Arthur a 185-proof product, which is a little more than 90% alcohol. Handle with care.
Arthur makes his own moonshine, but contracts out his regular whiskey offerings. All in all, it seems to be working, at least the quality aspect of it.
Before entering the distillery world, Arthur made forays into auto racing and biodiesel production. He also worked at Suddenlink.
He frets about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. His business opened in March 2019 to great fanfare, with Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kanawha County commissioner Ben Salango on hand for the ribbon cutting.
“You sign a five-year lease for $2,500 a month and a pandemic hits,” Arthur laments.
On the West Side, developer Tighe Bullock should be set to open his own distillery soon. In July, he had a batch of product and big plans. Unlike Arthur, he has a football field of room to work with in back, with tons of shiny equipment. He also owns his own building.
Presently, the two men can be found on Facebook commiserating over a shortage of suitable glass bottles. Add them to a scarcity of every other product that has occurred since the beginning of COVID-19. Bullock says in the post that the bottle shortage is a killer, since he has a $150,000 automatic bottling assembly ready to go.
Arthur said he hopes to stay alive on the kindness of out-of-towners.
“You’d be surprised at how many people within a four- or five-hour drive come here just to get away,” Arthur said.