For the first time in more than 200 years, Short Mountain whiskey is legal.
The men behind Short Mountain Distrillery, Christian Grantham (from left), John Whittmore, Josh Smotherman and Billy Kaufman, sit on the front porch of the distillery in Cannon County. (Photo by M. Hudgins)
It’s no secret that moonshine is imbedded in the culture of Cannon County, together with limestone and basket weaving.
In fact, Uncle Dave Macon shouted as much from Grand Ole Opry stage, singing:
In the Cannon County mountains, they have bright and growing fountains.
On every hill they have a still.
But you just remember one hundred days from next November,
There’ll be moonshine in the Cannon County hills.
O, those hills, those beautiful hills,
There’ll be moonshine in the Cannon County hills.
Bright lights on Broadway, the sun shines bright in Dixie
But there’s moonshine in the Cannon County hills.
“The only industries in Cannon County for a long time were white oak basket weaving for women and making moonshine for men,” Billy Kaufman explained.
“My great grandfather came from North Carolina, and that’s how he (provided) for his family,” John Whittemore added. “If it wasn’t for baskets and whiskey, we would’ve starved to death.”
Through a series of connections and lots of coincidences, four men – Kaufman, Whittemore, Christian Grantham and Josh Smotherman – were brought together to pursue their collective dream of making (legal) whiskey on Short Mountain.
Last week, Short Mountain Distillery became Tennessee’s sixth whiskey maker. The state and federal permits came months after supporters changed Cannon County law by referendum to allow distilleries.
But their dream goes much further than creating and selling a lucrative product. It’s about going back to the way things were by using local farmers, maintaining old recipes and being true to their values.
Call it a stimulus of sorts.
“China is not involved,” Kaufman said.
“In fact, China would be receiving this product,” Grantham added. “A lot of Americans are looking for a fix for what is broken. One of those fixes is looking to our heritage of sustainability as Americans and how to make it relevant to the economy.”
“There’s no quick-fix decisions,” Kauffman explained. “Everything we’re doing is based on original values, shop local first, conservation, recycling – it is all part of our practice.”
All of the manufacturing equipment was made in the United States – a fact in which the men pride themselves. They thought it would be a good idea to slap American flags on everything to prove a point, but the distillery turned into a hodgepodge of red, white and blue.
“A lot of it is investing in our neighbors who are within five miles of us,” Kaufman said. “The closer the connection, the better the reward. When hiring neighbors, they’re going to work harder, come back and talk to their friends about you.”
“How many people would do that for Walmart? Just think about that,” Grantham said.
“There are so many cheap options, but people don’t ever realize the true cost of choosing those options,” Kaufman continued. “We’re already starting to reap the benefits of working with neighbors, and we haven’t even started (distilling) yet. I can see the rewards of it once we start going – it’s just going to take off.”
Grantham aims to sell Short Mountain sour mash white whiskey on Broadway, in Dixie and Beijing.
“We want to make moonshine the American vodka,” Kaufman said.
Down a winding road, up a short mountain, between rows of cows and corn is the distillery – right where it should be.
“They made moonshine on this farm; it was just part of the infrastructure,” Kaufman said.
“A lot of old-timers would talk about selling sugar or making moonshine,” Grantham said.
“It’s in the blood on one side or the other – either selling sugar or busting moonshiners,” Kaufman added.
After all, homemade whiskey has been illegal in the great country of Cannon County since prohibition.
“Before, it was a gentleman’s game … somebody would call up and say, ‘They’re going to be busting your still, so you’d better not be there,’” Kaufman explained.
Not much will be changing – the recipes and even the distiller are the same – except that now it’s legal and more pleasing to the palate.
“Retired moonshiners will be making everything, but it will (taste) better because of modern technology,” Kaufman said.
Just as historians document wars, these men are fighting to preserve the stories of Cannon County’s moonshiners.
Grantham explained how the days of passing down recipes and techniques is long gone. While still a lucrative business, moonshine making is hard work.
“The moonshiners are dying off and retiring, and their kids aren’t carrying on (the business),” he said.
Rathre than letting their stories go untold, three retired moonshiners will bring 150 years of combined experience to Short Mountain Distillery, where they can share century-old recipes and techniques for making moonshine.
“Their families have been passing down skills for three and four generations – since 1910,” Kaufman said.
Before prohibition, farmers would sell their excess products to moonshiners. It just made sense to do so.
“If you have too much corn, what’s the best thing to do with it? Put it in a bottle you can keep for years. Send it across the country, use it for medicinal purposes and, obviously, celebrations,” Kaufman said.
“Doing so gave (crops) shelf life,” Smotherman said. “All that went with prohibition, but people still carried it on because it was part of their tradition.”
White lightnin’, un-aged whiskey, white mule – call it what you like, but moonshine will once again be produced in Cannon County come January and February. Bottling starts come March, and it’ll hit stores in April.
The public will be invited for tours on Friday and Saturday beginning March 23, where they’ll be able to talk with living legends.
At first, only moonshine will be available for purchase, but whiskey won’t be far behind.
“Whiskey is just moonshine flavored with wood – it’s like tea,” Kaufman said, adding that Short Mountain Distillery will use new, charred oak barrels to age the liquid.