Chuck Miller has moonshine in his blood—and I don’t mean that he’s been sampling from the bottling line again. “How did I get into the moonshine business? Well, my grandpa was in it,” he tells me with a grin, as we sit outside next to the stillhouse in his backyard. “He always had a lot of dairy tanks, but he only had one milk cow. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.”
The family lore from the Prohibition period, passed on by his father, sounds as if it might come with a shade of legend. There was the time Grandpa, running a shipment into Washington, D.C., in his Hudson, smashed through a police blockade on the 14th Street Bridge and had his back window shot out. Or the time the cops raided his house looking for the giggle water, but missed the entrance to the secret cellar, which was concealed under a rug and a rocking chair. “Grandma, she knew what to do,” Chuck beams. “She went right to her rocking chair, started rocking and crocheting. They tore the place apart and couldn’t find nothin’.” The IRS did, however, eventually get him on tax evasion, and in order to pay the fine, the story goes, he was forced to sell eleven houses.
Chuck tells these stories with a boyish enthusiasm, and he genuinely seems to get a kick out them still, even after having repeated them to reporters and customers alike over the past twenty-five years. He’s almost seventy, with a bushy white mustache and twinkling eyes, and he seems to be dressed perpetually in cowboy boots and plaid shirts with ivory snaps. Young Chuck flew the F-100 in Vietnam and spent some time as a commercial pilot for Eastern, but settled in 1975 on Belmont Farm outside Culpeper, Virginia. Like pretty much every square inch of the Commonwealth, the area is steeped in history all its own. A few hills over, on a hot day in August 1862, Stonewall Jackson’s divisions collided with a group of federals dug in on Cedar Mountain. By nightfall, more than 3,500 men had fallen. So, too, does American whiskey have deep Virginia roots. The first recorded distillation of corn took place near Jamestown, only a few years after the English settlement was first founded: “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne,” colonist George Thorpe wrote to a cousin in 1620.
What drove Chuck into the business was low commodity prices in the 1980s, which set him looking for new ways to earn a profit from the earth. “Wasn’t a lot of money in farming back then,” he says. “I got to thinking, well darn grandpa made all that money making corn whiskey.” But he wanted his operation to be legit—and that took some doing. Today there are hundreds of craft distilleries around the country; Chuck was among the first to set up shop. Getting the license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, he says, took about two years. He pieced together his grandfather’s old recipe and began to experiment—for instance, with how, precisely, to mix the corn and boiling water to create mash. “Well, I thought, why not just boil it up like Cream of Wheat?” he told the Fredericksburg Lance-Star in 1990. The reporter added: “He soon found out. The corn congealed into baseball-sized gobs.” Before long, though, the stuff began to pass muster. The first order was 300 cases of twelve bottles. Chuck named it Virginia Lightning.
The term moonshine implies the clandestine nature of illegal distilling, done in the woods, after dark, by only Luna’s dim light. Virginia Lightning, though government-approved, is considered moonshine by virtue of Chuck’s heritage and the fact that it isn’t aged. Traditional whiskey gets its caramel color and flavor complexity from soaking for months or years inside oak barrels, which are often charred on the inside. Chuck’s moonshine, clear as water, goes straight from the still into the bottle. “The only time it ages,” he adds, “is when it’s on the truck.”
Belmont Farm grows all its own corn. Chuck grinds it up and pours it, a ton at a time, into a cook tank with some water, where it is boiled to break the starch down into sugar. Once the mash is cooled and a bit of yeast from a previous batch is added, fermentation begins. After a few days of bubbling, the whole mix is pumped into the operation’s pride and joy, a 2,000-gallon, solid copper pot still, originally built in 1933, which separates the alcohol from the water. The liquid that pours out at the end of the process is 150-proof, though it is then cut to 100-proof at the behest of the regulators.
In fact, the list of tasks undertaken to please one bureaucrat or another is a long one. For instance, when I visit in the fall, Belmont Farm is producing two new flavors: moonshine mixed with cherries and with apple juice and then bottled in mason jars. Chuck’s wife Jeanette walks me through the process of launching a product: getting the formula approved by the state and the feds; getting the label approved by the state and the feds. “It’s gotten worse,” Chuck says. “I looked at my records: Twenty years ago, we made a strawberry moonshine. It took two weeks to get it all done. Today it takes like nine months.” Then, because liquor stores in Virginia are a state-run monopoly, there’s a formal hearing to request shelf space for the new product. “They only do it four times a year,” he says. “You’re allowed fifteen minutes. You’ve got to come in, present your product, and convince them they need it.”
Public liquor stores are a vestige, of Prohibition, like a bad hangover from the Eighteenth Amendment that, eighty years later, the state simply can’t shake. A handful of years ago, Bob McDonnell, then the Commonwealth’s Republican governor, now a noted health-supplement aficionado, proposed replacing the state-run stores with licenses that would be auctioned off to private retailers, such as grocers and gas stations.
The idea went down hard amid political infighting. McDonnell failed to build a coalition to support the plan, and the head of the governor’s political action committee lashed out, calling the Republican House of Delegates “spineless” for failing to wholeheartedly embrace it. The biggest obstacle to privatization was just what one might expect: State-run liquor stores are hugely profitable. The sale of a fifth of whiskey in D.C. or Maryland puts a buck or two in those states’ coffers; in Virginia, the figure is more like $13. All told, liquor pours approximately $250 million into the state’s budget each year, which helps pay for everything from prisons, to mental health facilities, to, yes, schools. McDonnell didn’t have a realistic proposal for replacing this money, and the prospect of looming cuts, particularly to education, appealed to few. The message from those opposed to the plan was pretty simple. State-run liquor stores: Think of the children!
It’s almost beyond question, though, that the current setup serves consumers poorly. The Washington Post helpfully pointed out during the debate that Virginia’s 332 state-run stores furnish firewater to more than 8 million people; the District of Columbia, with about 650,000 people, contains more than 500 liquor stores. Qualitatively, too, the Commonwealth can’t measure up. Earlier this year I stopped into one of Utah’s state-run liquor stores, an imposing building with a façade of tan cinderblocks, a corrugated metal roof, and tiny brutalist windows. Add a razor wire fence and it would make a perfect exterior set for The Shawshank Redemption II. Yet inside, it was a thriving retail business—bustling customers, a large selection, sales, new products, a big case of out-of-my-price-range wines.
Virginia’s package stores, by contrast, have an almost antiseptic feel to them. The one nearest me, like most in my corner of northern Virginia, is wedged into a strip mall. There’s no signage from the road, so the only way to find it is to already know it’s there. When I visit looking for a bottle of Chuck’s finest an hour or two before closing time on a recent Saturday night, the place is deserted. Not counting me, the only occupants are two employees and six security cameras. Most locations close at 9 p.m., which is convenient for all those drinkers with strict 10 o’clock bedtimes. Even the name itself, ABC Store, which stands for Alcoholic Beverage Control, seems to stand in judgment of those who dare to enter.
I ask Chuck about all this, and he seems less worried about the system he knows—the one he has learned to work successfully within—than about the harebrained schemes potential reformers might dream up. And fair enough: If a state has been this intent on subjugating the sauce for this long, are legislators likely to just step back and let the market reign? Or would they inevitably pick winners and losers, by, for instance, tilting the playing field in favor of powerful distributors?
“If they’d let me sell to the store it would be free enterprise, OK? They wouldn’t let me do that. I have to go through a distributor,” Chuck says. “If you want free enterprise, by God, then give it to me. Let me sell it!”
All of the attention paid to Virginia Lightning has made Chuck something of a minor celebrity, particularly among the faithful who trek to Culpeper to tour the stillhouse. This seems to mystify him slightly. “People come by, they want me to autograph their bottles, take my picture…” he says, before trailing off.
A whole section of the gift shop is dedicated to displaying press clippings and information on television segments gone by. The History Channel. The National Geographic Channel. On an episode of the Discovery Channel’s hit show Moonshiners, the overalls-clad protagonist, ostensibly considering how to take his operation straight, seeks Chuck out for advice on the rules and regs in the federal code. “This,” Chuck demonstrates, running the tines through a pile of corn, “is a USDA-approved rake.” The moonshiner looks dumbfounded: “I ain’t never in my life heard of such a thing.”
Chuck gave his hooch to Bill Clinton when the two met in Culpeper. (“Only thing I don’t know is if he drank it or not.”) Patricia Cornwell, by way of research for a novel, stopped by Belmont Farm and landed her helicopter out front. (“She wanted to know how to make moonshine for a book she was doing, so I taught her to make moonshine and she gave us a ride in the helicopter.”) The publicity helps. Chuck estimates that the distillery now sells approximately 10,000 cases—120,000 bottles—a year, and several thousand people stop by to see the operation and pick up a souvenir or two.
When I head for the door, Chuck hands me a bottle of the original Virginia Lightning for the road. I ask him to autograph it and, after rummaging around for a Sharpie, he is happy to oblige.
He signs it the same way he signs all the bottles: “Best of Luck—Moonshine Chuck.”