MAN — The town of Man looks like a lot of declining coal towns in Appalachia. It could be any of a hundred small towns in West Virginia.
Mid-week and middle of the day, Main Street in downtown Man is a little drowsy. There are some empty buildings, a few old storefronts that might have held a clothing shop or a five-and-dime store. Whatever they once were, they’ve been replaced by a consignment store and an antique shop that also sells candles and primitive decor.
During the boom years, Man was a different place.
“They were all company towns around here with company stores, and everybody had their own little bars,” said Chris Trent, one of the owners of Mountain Mama Moonshine.
The 27-year-old said the company bars would serve beer imported from out of state, but they often got their liquor from locals.
Trent and his partner, Bill Copley, are trying to bring that back — in a way.
In October, the two opened Mountain Mama Moonshine, a distillery, tasting room and gift shop, next to the railroad tracks and near the Hatfield-McCoy trail that snakes through Logan County.
“We wanted to have a place where people on the trail could stop in Man,” Trent said. “Up until we had this, they didn’t really have any need to.”
The idea came a couple of years ago, after Copley had been, again, laid off from a surface mining job.
“It was my third lay-off,” the 29-year-old said.
“We were sitting out front of the town library one evening, smoking cigars, as we often do,” Trent recalled. “Just talking, when I said, ‘Why don’t we just make moonshine?’”
It wasn’t as if they didn’t know how. The pair had been making home brew off and on since they were in high school.
Trent smiled sheepishly and added, “I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on that, but I do want to say we didn’t sell none of it. It was just for our own consumption.”
Which he acknowledged would have been illegal, too, but maybe not as bad.
The recipe for their moonshine came from Copley’s grandfather, who’d been caught operating an illegal distillery in 1963.
“It was the great shame of my great-grandmother,” Copley said.
He said he didn’t think it was so bad. He thought it was kind of cool. A framed newspaper clipping detailing the arrest hangs on a wall inside the distillery.
“It came from a box that survived the fire from her house,” Copley said. “It was just about the only thing that did.”
Copley’s grandfather was found guilty and required to pay the government thousands of dollars in taxes.
“He didn’t get that paid off until late in life,” Trent said.
Not that getting caught by the government seemed to stop him from making moonshine.
Copley learned how to make the liquor at his grandfather’s elbow.
“My mother had me when she was young,” Copley explained. “My grandparents helped raise me.”
Copley’s mother was in high school when he was born, but she and Copley’s father divorced when he was 9 years old.
His father moved to North Carolina. His mother, a nurse, remarried, but Copley spent a lot of time with his grandparents and would follow along with grandfather as he tended his still.
“I watched at first,” he said. “Eventually, I asked what he was doing and how.”
It’s how he learned and eventually came to make his own moonshine.
Copley’s grandfather died of cancer in 2009, and Copley started working in surface mines.
Trent, meanwhile, took classes through Western Governors University for a couple of years, until he became the director at the Logan County Family Resource Network
“I didn’t graduate,” he said. “I ought to go back and finish.”
One of these days, Trent promised.
Trent said not everybody in Man was happy about having a distillery in town, and some fought against them being allowed to open.
“I was shocked,” Trent said. “Coal is dying. We need people to invest in other industries and diversify our economy, or we’re not going to make it.”
Besides, nobody else seemed to be doing it.
Some in Man argued against the very nature of the business, Trent said. They disagreed with the consumption of alcohol. Others worried about increased violence and brought up ancient stories of murder and mayhem that went back almost 100 years.
Mountain Mama Moonshine got its license, and Trent said many of the people who railed against them have since softened their stance.
“A couple of them have come to ask us for money to help support one of the recreation league teams.” He shrugged and added, “We’re glad to help our community.”
Mountain Mama Moonshine’s operation is small.
“Mostly, it’s just us,” Trent said, though he added that wasn’t really true. “We have a lot of friends and family who’ve come down from time to time to help us out.”
They also had a lot of help from friends and family just getting started, he added, but they do spend a lot of time in the distillery, making or monitoring the distillation process.
Pushed over in a corner, they have a punching bag, a weight bench and an exercise machine. There are other signs of early mornings and very late nights spent near the vats.
“I like to come in the morning,” Copley said. “Before it heats up.”
The distillery is heated by a 500,000 BTU boiler and turns the warehouse into a sweat lodge during the day.
“We don’t have air-conditioning in here,” Trent said and pointed at an industrial fan turning steadily in a window high up on the wall. “That’s our air conditioner.”
They hope to change that one day. It’s on a long list of plans and improvements.
Right now, Trent and Copley said they’re just trying to increase distribution throughout the state and also turn their property into more of a destination for ATV tourists.
Adjacent to the distillery, the two men have another building that’s slowly being turned into a roadhouse and grill, mostly a destination for visitors.
New windows have been installed, but Trent said it could be a while before it’s ready.
“Maybe next year,” he said.
At the moment, they’re more concerned about security. The night before the Gazette-Mail visited, someone broke into the distillery and made off with a little over $1,000 dollars in cash.
The thief used a long screwdriver to pry open a door. They left a wicked scratch on the inside of the sturdy door frame.
“The police can’t do much. The guy put his hand on the camera,” Trent said, pointing up to a security camera aimed at the front door. “But with the humidity, the police couldn’t take a print.”
They upgraded the locks and will keep a better eye on the property.
The theft was discouraging, but not entirely unexpected. Times are tough. It’s not just Man or Logan, it’s the whole state.
Trent said they hoped to one day distribute far beyond just the state borders.
“The plan is to go nationwide,” he said. “I’d like us to be sold everywhere, but that’s going to be three or four years at least.”
The moonshine field is a little crowded. In the last 10 years, the legal moonshine business has expanded rapidly, with makers cropping up all over the state.
So far, Mountain Mama offers a clear moonshine, as well as popular flavors like apple pie, peach and cinnamon, but Trent and Copley are also trying to find their own piece of the moonshine market with different flavors like coal black cherry, which is dedicated to the memory of Copley’s stepfather, Don Bragg.
Bragg was one of two men killed in the Aracoma Alma mine fire in 2006.
“The black cherry isn’t for everybody,” Trent said. “Black cherry has a harder flavor than sweet cherry. It’s kind of old-time.”
Other flavors, they say, will follow in the coming months, and they’re planning to roll out a more potent version of their clear, 80-proof product.
Mountain Mama will have a 110-proof clear moonshine, which Copley and Trent believed is the strongest of its kind in the state — not that potency is the only reason why they want to offer the liquor.
“It tastes better,” Copley said. “It’s smooth, but you still get that sweet corn flavor, but it’s not old sugar liquor.”
“And it doesn’t cost us any more to make it,” Trent added.
Plus, nobody else is doing it.
Reach Bill Lynch at
304-348-5195 or follow
@LostHwys on Twitter.
Follow Bill’s One Month at a Time progress on his blog at