Back when moonshine was illegal, Chuck Miller was just a glimmer in his grandfather’s eye. His grandpa ran through roadblocks to get his moonshine into the D.C. area, and his grandma manned the rocking chair that hid the secret door to the liquor storage room during raids, but neither had any idea that one of their grandsons would turn a family tradition into a law-abiding enterprise that makes and sells moonshine and whiskey throughout Virginia.
Invented in Virginia
Miller uses his grandfather’s secret recipe to produce whiskey (legally) that has lips smacking all over Virginia. “This is a Virginia product,” Miller explains, and he means it quite literally. Moonshine—known formally as fresh corn whiskey—is itself a Virginia invention.
The first reported corn whiskey was produced in Jamestown in 1620 on the banks of the James River by colonist George Thorpe. Thorpe brewed beer from a native corn and then distilled it, creating the first corn liquor, the predecessor to moonshine and bourbon.
“We don’t do it like they do over in Kentucky or North Carolina. This is our own way,” Miller says. Miller and his wife, Jeanette, started Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper 22 years ago. They distill two distinct whiskeys: a 100-proof fresh corn liquor called Virginia Lightning and a more refined, aged 86-proof whiskey called Kopper Kettle, which was the first registered whiskey in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kopper Kettle is a rich, triple-grain, double-wood, twice-distilled libation made with a mash of corn, wheat, and barley.
What sets this distillery apart from other local distilleries is its 2,000-gallon copper pot still—part of the family tradition, the Millers insist. The mammoth still is said to have been made in 1933. Not coincidentally, that was the year when Prohibition ended.
“We’re trying to preserve a little bit of an American tradition,” Miller says. “Copper pot stills have been in use since 1648. Why would I want to go with stainless steel now?” Stainless steel column stills have all but replaced copper stills because they can distill the spirits more quickly.
Fine liquors such as cognac and scotch, however, can only be made in a copper pot still because copper reacts differently than stainless steel. “Stainless steel makes the liquor sharp, gives it a little more of a bite. It takes longer to age,” Miller explains. Kopper Kettle has all the character of popular brands and a distinct mellowness that carries through to the last drop, which Miller attributes to his limestone-rich water and the copper pot. “Copper mellows the whiskey out. I prefer to do it the old-time way.”
As the name suggests, Belmont Farm Distillery grows its own grain. In fact, it is the only U.S. distillery to do so. Two thousand bushels of the corn used in the mash is grown and milled right on the farm. The distillery uses local oak and apple wood to impart color and flavor. The whiskey then goes on to age for two years in Virginia white oak barrels in a room off the distillery. Unlike wine cellars, which must stay at a constant temperature during the aging process, here the room temperature fluctuates with the seasons. As the whiskey warms, it expands and takes flavor from the oak barrels. Each of the hundreds of barrels in the aging room will only be used once to age whiskey so that it maintains its consistency.
Something Pretty Good Here
Unlike his ancestors, Miller is licensed to sell White Lightning and Kopper Kettle whiskeys at Virginia ABC stores and at the distillery. It is well worth the trip to the distillery to see the copper pot still and hear family stories from Miller himself, who revels in his family’s colorful history. In addition to their almost daily tours, the Millers will be hosting an antique car show in September and October with farm tours, bluegrass bands, and over 200 Ford Model A’s. Even though they visit with over 4,000 visitors annually, the Millers make each visitor feel welcome and privy to family secrets.
“We got us something pretty good here, huh?” Miller asks rhetorically. Tourists and residents alike should come to see and taste the true Virginia spirit he’s making.
Trista Scheuerlein directs the Farm-to-Table Program in Rappahannock County Public Schools. She has been actively involved in the sustainable and organic agriculture movement for 15 years.
Belmont Farm Distillery
13490 Cedar Run Rd., Culpeper
Tuesday through Saturday,
from April to late December (closed holidays)
10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.