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Posted 10/04/2022 in Informational

The Legacy of Moonshine: The Evolution of Branchwater Distillery

The Legacy of Moonshine: The Evolution of Branchwater Distillery

A century and a half ago, amidst the verdant valleys of rural Tennessee, a particular kind of industry thrived in secret.

Moonshining – the illicit distillation of spirits, usually corn whiskey, was a skill passed down through generations of families in the Appalachian Mountains. 

A Brief History of Moonshine

Moonshine has a rich and colorful history that dates back centuries. The term "moonshine" refers to illegally produced and typically high-proof distilled spirits, often made under the cover of darkness ("by the light of the moon") to evade authorities. Its origins can be traced back to the early days of distillation, when settlers in regions such as the United States and Scotland began crafting their own spirits to bypass excessive taxes or regulations. 

Moonshine gained prominence during periods of prohibition, such as the Prohibition era in the United States from 1920 to 1933, when the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol were banned. During this time, clandestine distilleries and hidden operations flourished, with moonshiners often using makeshift stills in remote locations to create their illicit spirits. The production of moonshine was not without risks, as its illicit nature often led to confrontations with law enforcement and the possibility of dangerous, poorly produced liquor. 

Distilling Moonshine - the beginnings of a family tradition

Born in 1896, Johnson began moonshining at a young age alongside farming. With no formal education and limited means, Johnson, newly married and living with his parents, found an unusual ally. The judge of Florence, Alabama, served as their distributor. Johnson would leave the moonshine hidden in the woods, passing information to the judge, who would then have his men retrieve it.

Dave Johnson at his Distillery - approx 1915Dave Johnson at his Distillery - approx 1915

His operation was a family affair. Johnson’s nine children each had roles. Some were responsible for procuring sugar, while others tended to the corn crops they grew. They used sprouted corn instead of yeast, leveraging its natural starch when mixed with sugar to begin the fermentation process. They sourced cold spring water, necessary for cooling the distilling equipment and condensing the steam into potent moonshine.

Dave Johnson at his Distillery with his WifeDave Johnson at his Distillery with his Wife

Johnson’s moonshining days spanned fifteen years, during which he amassed enough wealth to invest in farming and land. As he grew older and the fear of being caught increased, Johnson decided to leave the moonshining world, dedicating his time exclusively to farming in Lutts.

Continuing the Legacy - Branchwater Distillery

Fast-forward to the present day, the legacy of Johnson lives on, not in secrecy but proudly at the heart of Winchester, Tennessee – the Branchwater Distillery, adjacent to Tims Ford Lake. Founded by his grandson, Bud Kelly, this family-owned business is a testament to the shift in public perception and laws governing moonshine production.

The path wasn't straightforward, however. Kelly was living in South Carolina, working at CSX railroad when he helped a friend establish a moonshine distillery. This sparked an interest in reviving his grandfather's legacy, but legally. Despite initial disbelief from his parents, Kelly pursued his passion. After a lengthy process to obtain a license, he eventually opened Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN.

Bud Kelley at Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TNBud Kelley at Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN

Despite the modern approach, they maintain respect for tradition. Distillation depends on the same basic ingredients Johnson used: corn, sugar, yeast, and spring water. 

Creating Moonshine "Your Way"

As moonshine lovers taste the strong and smooth concoctions of Branchwater, they're often pleasantly surprised by the range of flavors available. The distillery sells moonshine and flavorings separately, giving patrons the flexibility to mix their own flavored moonshine. The simplicity of this idea has streamlined the manufacturing process and has also become a selling point for the distillery.

Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TNBranchwater Distillery in Winchester TN - where its made

The Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN is a testament to how far moonshining has come from the shadowy woods of Tennessee to the limelight of legal and commercial acceptance. It's a tribute to the past and a bridge to the future, showcasing how, with time, an illicit trade can transform into a thriving, legitimate business, never forgetting its roots, but continuously adapting to the ever-evolving legal and cultural landscape.

Dave is the name of Branchwater Distillery's stillDave is the name of Branchwater Distillery's still

The History of the Name Branchwater

The Branchwater Distillery name carries a whimsical anecdote from the bygone moonshining era. The distillery's namesake harks back to the clever tactics used by Dave Johnson to hide his stills from law enforcement. When a site became compromised, Johnson would strip the main still and hoist what was left into the branches of a nearby pine tree using a pulley system. 

Unless you were directly underneath the tree looking up, you would never find the remnants of the main still. He had a total of five stills at different locations, hidden in the branches, hence the name, Branchwater.

A Visit to the Branchwater Distillery

Just a block off the Winchester TN Square, a visit to the distillery presents a unique tasting experience. The strong, clear moonshine has a distinct taste that pairs exceptionally well with a variety of flavorings. The flavorings, made with real fruit and sugar, are cooked down to a thick, concentrated syrup and sold separately. Customers can mix their preferred flavor with the moonshine to suit their tastes. This DIY approach has become a hit with patrons, who love the opportunity to customize their drinks.

Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN StorefrontBranchwater Distillery in Winchester TN Storefront

In addition to selling moonshine and flavorings, the distillery also offers full drinks mixed on-site. There's also an assortment of Branchwater merchandise available, a nod to the growing popularity of moonshine culture.

Branchwater Distillery FlavoringsNumerous Branchwater Distillery Flavorings

On the distillery wall, visitors can see Bud Kelly's very first still, a piece of equipment that marks the transition from the illegal operations of the past to the regulated enterprise of the present. This artifact serves as a physical reminder of the journey moonshine has taken over the last 150 years.

Branchwater Distillery's story is not just about moonshine; it's a story about heritage, perseverance, adaptation, and entrepreneurship. It serves as an inspiration for anyone striving to transform a family tradition into a thriving business, illustrating how, with tenacity and a deep respect for one's roots, it is possible to take an illicit art form and turn it into a proud and legal enterprise.

Inside of Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TNInside of Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN

From the hidden hollows of Lutts, Tennessee, to the bustling town of Winchester, the tale of moonshine is alive and well at Branchwater Distillery in Winchester TN.

As the clear liquid flows, warmed by history and cooled by innovation, the legacy of Dave Johnson and his family continues to shape the world of moonshine, one drop at a time.

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