Mountain State Distillery owner, operator and chief bottle-washer Jeff Arthur was a little down when I showed up for my first whiskey lesson.
In the early evening, his tasting room was empty. Through the big windows looking out onto Capitol Street and the Boulevard, I could see people passing by, many of them jogging by the river, enjoying the unseasonably warm October sun.
The store was eerily quiet.
“You can hear the light bulbs,” Jeff complained.
And sure, if you listened closely, the fluorescent lights hummed.
“So, get a radio?” I suggested.
Jeff rolled his eyes and explained that he had an XM radio, but he wasn’t playing any music in his store until he figured out if that was going to cost him anything.
A few months back, the whiskey maker hosted an event for United Way. The organization was collecting shoes for needy children and had brought in a couple musicians to help attract a crowd.
“It was just a singer and a guy with a guitar,” Jeff said. “I didn’t even hire them. I just offered my space because it seemed like a nice thing to do, you know?”
Not long after the United Way event, he got a bill from ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. They wanted $400 for the duo.
“I’m not paying it,” Jeff said.
The money was for fees related to public performances of ASCAP members’ music. Bars and restaurants typically pay those fees yearly.
ASCAP was treating his showroom like a bar, which it isn’t.
Jeff said they kept pestering him, asking whether he planned to do more events with music, whether he planned to play music in his store for customers.
“I guess I’m just frustrated today,” he told me.
Half empty/half full
This was the beginning of my education about whiskey in West Virginia.
For years at the Gazette-Mail, I have unofficially commandeered (or tried to commandeer) the “booze beat” for the newspaper. When distilleries first started taking off across the state, I wrote about several of them.
I’ve also occasionally brought in beer and cider for taste tests in the newsroom (always a big hit, even when everybody hated what got poured) and I have an ongoing, occasional series called “Seasonal Sips” that showcases cocktails, usually centered around a holiday.
I’m even a lightweight bourbon fan — not a fan of lightweight bourbon, just a casual fan of bourbon.
I know what I like but drink what I can afford (which is sometimes just tap water), and I suspect the only way I’m ever going to get to try the “good stuff” is if someone leaves me a bottle in their will — or if a bottle of the crazy expensive stuff falls off the back of a truck and magically lands at my feet.
But making whiskey has been something I’ve been interested in trying for years. In my goofier moments, I’ve imagined starting out by making what I think of as easier spirits — like maybe brandy or moonshine — and then moving up to a full-bodied whiskey, something similar to gin or even a bourbon.
Maybe I could grow the corn, too, or use the apples from the tree in my back yard.
Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to bottle and give at Christmas?
I thought so.
Learn at home?
I’ve even gone so far as to look at the home distillation kits on Amazon. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them you can run on top of your kitchen stove, if you want.
Kits start at around $100, about the same price as a good bread machine.
Of course, I don’t actually have about a hundred bucks to throw at a whiskey distillation kit, though I do have a pretty good bread machine.
I bought it at Goodwill for $5 three or four years ago and use it about once a week, but the odds of me finding a $5 still at the same thrift store seem about as likely as me finding scuba gear or a mechanical bull — at least, at that price.
Also, the bargain entry-level distillation kits worried me.
While I make a lot of bread at home, using recipes from books I get from the library, nothing I’ve made has much chance of killing or blinding me. Just because I could buy a thing didn’t mean I’d know how to use it.
And was it really all that necessary for me to buy a ready-made kit in the first place? Hadn’t proud mountain men built their own moonshine stills for generations? Couldn’t I learn to do that?
That’s what I asked Jeff about the first time we spoke: How easy is it for someone to put together one of these devices?
Jeff’s first still was by the front window in his shop. He’d built it in college out of a stock pot and the lid to a copper pot. A series of copper pipes, probably intended for a household gas line, had been soldered from the lid. The apparatus ended in a five-gallon bucket.
I thought, “I can do that.” I just needed to find someone who could do a little welding, which didn’t seem all that hard. I actually knew someone taking classes and working toward certifications as a welder.
Building my own still might not even cost that much, I thought.
All I needed was to get an old stock pot at a flea market, maybe buy the copper pipe second-hand from ReStore or just pick it up at Lowe’s.
Then Jeff pointed out what I’d failed to notice — the Teflon tape wound around segments of his distillery.
“That’s from moving it,” he said. “You’ve got to keep everything pretty tight.”
Alcohol fumes, Jeff explained, don’t rise. They sink toward the ground. They tend to sink toward the heat source at the base of the still. In the case of Jeff’s old still, that had been a hot-plate burner.
“Alcohol fumes are very flammable,” he said. “If you’re not careful. If you don’t have proper ventilation, you could have a really bad day.”
Suddenly, I imagined turning my home into a smoldering crater because I stepped away to watch half a dozen episodes on Netflix.
I told Jeff I still might try to assemble my own still, but he said I could learn at his store and it would be a lot safer.
“It’s a slow process,” he told me. “It would probably take all month just to make a bottle for you.”
I told him I had all month, that I would hang out at his store, but also explore a little bit.
More than a single shot
We shook hands, and I agreed to start on Monday, but we were off to a rocky start. On a Monday evening, Jeff was just feeling the weight of his business on him. It had been a struggle to open and it was a struggle to make it work.
He’d put a lot of time and money into opening the space on Capitol Street.
“And I don’t even know if this is the right location for me,” he said.
Jeff saw his distillery as part of the downtown Charleston culture, an attraction that might draw people from out of the area, but he felt isolated.
“Most of my sales are from people visiting Charleston,” he said. “I don’t see that many locals.”
His products aren’t carried in many locations. You can’t find Mountain State Moonshine in most local bars or restaurants. Getting his whiskey distributed felt daunting.
A few people have offered to help, to try and distribute his whiskey in other parts of the state, but that hasn’t panned out.
“People just don’t do what they say they’re going to do,” he said.
Jeff said hiring a sales rep to take his products into restaurants and bars makes sense, but that’s not in his budget. The kind of travel that would require doesn’t make sense for a family man with two kids to take care of during the day.
“So, I’m kind of stuck,” he said.
I told him I knew next to nothing about any of that, but that with the month ahead, I was interested in looking into it to see if anything could be done. I could try to learn a little about the whiskey business in West Virginia. Maybe I’d find something he could use.
“We’ll get started tomorrow,” he said.