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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012

Georgia moonshine makers back in business, and this time the law’s on their side

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moonshine photo
Phil Skinner, pskinner@ajc.com
Master distiller Carlos Lovell sitting among the wood barrels of liquor stored at Ivy Mountain Distillery in Mt. Airy.
moonshine photo
Phil Skinner, pskinner@ajc.com
Fred Lovell (left) watches his brother Carlos stir the sour mash before it enters the still at Ivy Mountain Distillery in Mt. Airy on Wednesday Sept. 5th, 2012.

By Bob Townsend

Early one morning at Ivy Mountain Distillery in Mt. Airy, in the foothills of North Georgia, Carlos Lovell was watching the open end of a steel pipe where he’d placed a pot to catch the first flow of a new batch of corn liquor.

“It’s fixin’ to run,” Lovell said. “It’s on its way, right now. It runs a little cloudy when it first starts. But in a little bit, it will run just as pretty and clear as crystal.”

Minutes later, Lovell moved another pot under the stream, caught some of the strikingly translucent liquid in a glass, and took a sip. “It’s liquor now,” he said.

What wasn’t said was that it’s legal now, too.

Lovell, 84, and his brother, Fred, 82, learned the ways of making outlawed corn liquor from their father, Virgil Lovell. Like farming and raising Angus cattle, homemade spirits have been a way of life for the Habersham County family for some 150 years.

Lovell, who nowadays tends toward button down short sleeve shirts, khaki slacks and Ivy Mountain gimme caps, quit school and started in the moonshining business when he was 16.

“The last [liquor] I made was down in Jackson County. A man had three big chicken houses, and we went down and built a chicken house right beside them and put a still in it. We’d run 125 cases a day. But it wasn’t the kind of liquor we’ve got now. It was old moonshine. It wasn’t fit for nothin’.”

He shut down his last still in the early 1960s. Since then Lovell has spent his time buying, selling and developing mountain property. But two years ago, he asked his daughter, Carlene Holder, to help him get back in the liquor business.

“It was Daddy’s idea,” Holder remembered. “It was November 2010 and I was sitting in his den in Clarksville and he said, ‘I’m gonna make liquor again.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Daddy, you can’t.’ He said, ‘Yes I can. I’m going to do it legally. All you have to do is get the licenses.’ ”

Fast forward to last June. Carlos and Fred Lovell were at Mac McGee Irish Pub on Decatur Square, leaning back at a table, telling tales of revenuers, runaway mules and building stillhouses in the woods. They held in their hands a newfangled cocktail called the Lovell Moonshine Smash made with their white whiskey.

Eagle Rock Distributing Co. was debuting the distillery’s first three products — Georgia Sour Mash Spirits, Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey and Georgia Apple Brandy.

Among the crowd at the tasting were members of the Mac McGee whiskey club. Besides the rare chance to meet a couple of real live ex-moonshiners and taste their traditional spirits, there was the lure of getting in on the next big thing in the craft beverage industry.

“Craft distilling is huge right now,” said Casey Teague, Mac McGee owner and resident whiskey expert. “That’s the next direction.”

Teague is intrigued by Ivy Mountain’s moonshining roots. “I think it’s a great part of American history,” he said. “White liquor has always been big, and what they’re doing is a very important part of keeping that history alive.”

Of course, illegal liquor has long been romanticized in pop culture. There’s the Robert Mitchum 1950s moonshine-running movie, “Thunder Road,” and white lightning’s legendary fast car to NASCAR connection. More recently, the Discovery Channel made the late Tennessee whiskey outlaw, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a hero of its “Moonshiners” series.

But the history of corn liquor is closer to folk traditions like canning and curing country hams, which the Lovells still do, too.

“My grandmother grew up in North Georgia and she would say that a lot of people running moonshine pretty much fed their families,” Teague said. “After the Civil War, the South was very poor. Distilling was a way to make some money.”

Teague particularly likes Lovell’s elemental take on white whiskey, also called “white dog.” Simply put, white whiskey is what “raw” whiskey looks and tastes like before it goes into oak barrels and is aged to give it a darker color and more complex flavor.

“I like the barrel-aged whiskey,” said Teague. “But I think the white dog really shows exactly what they’re doing in the pure spirit. You get a lot of green apple and cereal grains in the flavor profile. It’s absolutely amazing to have the kind of palate Carlos has and know exactly what you’re looking for.”

Nonplussed, Lovell is partial to the brown liquor. Back at the distillery in Mt. Airy, he proudly showed visitors where he ages his Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey in oak barrels purchased from Jack Daniels.

“I think we have about 300 barrels now,” Lovell said. “You’ve got to put liquor in barrels and have some age on it. Ain’t nobody gonna buy that clear liquor but a bunch of drunks. Daddy always told us, ‘Make good liquor and put it in barrels, hide it over in the woods, where nobody can find it, and that ain’t no different than money in the bank.’ ”

Most mornings Carlos Lovell is up and out of the house by six when he and Fred begin the painstaking process of making corn malt by sprouting local corn and grinding it before delivering it to the distillery.

Water from the family’s historic mountain springhouse is the not-so-secret ingredient in Ivy Mountain spirits.

At the distillery, the Lovell brothers mix the corn malt and water in stainless steel boxes, add a bit of barley malt and start the fermentation process with spent mash from an older batch. The sour mash ferments four or five days before it’s ready to be distilled. During that time, it’s periodically stirred with a mash stick fashioned from sour wood and white oak. Finally, it goes into the gas-fired still where it’s heated and turned into corn liquor.

During the days of pre-legal ‘shine, the Lovells got their product to customers by handing over fruit jars and pocketing the cash or selling to middlemen who loaded up the liquor into their cars and trucks. Today, customers can purchase their spirits at package stores from Mt. Airy and Cumming to Dunwoody and Decatur — or buy a drink at places like the Porter in Atlanta, Hi Life Restaurant in Norcross, Local 7 in Tucker and Nine Street Kitchen in Roswell.

“The packaging looks great, the story is even better, and the liquid is tremendous,” said Steve Economos, president of Eagle Rock Distributing Co. “But there can be a difference between good products and good brands. To build a brand is a grassroots approach. In this case, we have to tell the story of the folklore behind what’s in the bottle.”

That may be easier now than ever, said Dunwoody author Joe Dabney, who wrote two seminal books, “Mountain Spirits” and “More Mountain Spirits,” on the history and folklore of moonshining.

“What’s happened in recent years is that a lot of the old moonshiners have come out from the underground to tell their stories,” Dabney said. “Before, it was it was such a clandestine thing.”

Lovell’s daughter Carlene Holder said she was never privy to the details of her family’s moonshine business, but “during my high school years I was very much aware that Daddy had cases of whiskey hidden under bales of hay.” She doesn’t know why her father quit making spirits, but she thinks she knows why the family is back in the whiskey making business today.

“I think that Daddy and Fred had such a great relationship with their father and enjoyed all those early years that, in a way, they are living those days again,” Holder said. “Both Daddy and Fred will tell you that they have never been happier than when making liquor.

“At Mac McGee that June evening, when someone asked Daddy how it felt to be back making whiskey, his reply was priceless,” she recalled. “He answered with no hesitation: ‘It felt like home.’”

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