BARTOW, Ga. — It’s called by many names: bottled lightning, corn whiskey or shine. For some, the mystique behind the art of distilling home-cooked spirits is undeniably intoxicating.
One of those is Bartow’s mayor, Dwayne Morris, who is trying to preserve a tradition by bringing the stills out of the swamp and onto Main Street.
His Midnight Run Distillery, a state and federally permitted moonshining operation, has its grand opening today about 55 miles south of Augusta, and he hopes the business will mean as much to his sleepy little town as it does to him.
In a brick storefront built in 1900, just a few doors down from City Hall, Morris has spent the past several months cooking his own recipe of a retirement plan. When he started, it was just a shell of a building, without even a floor. Today it’s his tasting room, his kitchen and his showplace.
His business will be a distillery that offers tours and tastings with other merchandise, but under Georgia law, will not offer his primary bottled products for sale out the front door.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the distillation part,” Morris said. “I was four years from retiring and was looking for something to do. I started talking to people and visiting other distilleries.”
His wife, Sharon, said Morris “dragged us to every distillery he could find. That’s how we vacationed.”
When he saw the price on the store front, a vision began to bubble.
“I envisioned putting it here, downtown, front and center, Main Street in our hometown,” Morris said. “It’s a very fast-growing industry.”
The product he is focusing on for now is a small-batch corn whiskey he says is 80 percent corn, 20 percent wheat.
While getting the label approved he found that an all-wheat whiskey is considered a distilled spirit specialty and that he would have to apply for a new formula for that.
“We’ll still do the small batch corn that we’re doing right now, simply because some people believe that whiskey can only be made from corn. It can actually be made from anything you can ferment,” Morris said. “The thing is, anybody can make alcohol. Anybody can. But, can you make good alcohol, good whiskey?”
Morris said that all whiskies start out as moonshine, but the darker, chartered spirits are aged in wooden barrels that give it the color and flavor seen through the bottles. His permit allows for him to do that, and he says he might.
“Initially, we’re just doing the 80-, 90-, 100-proof with plans to further into flavors. But you’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “We are currently seeking a distributor for this product.”
At the back of Morris’ tasting room is what appears to be the porch of an old cabin. Climb the plank steps, pass through the door and before you stands the still itself, all copper kettle, pipes and wooden barrels.
According to federal law, anyone can own a still, Morris said, but the second you put it on a burner you are crossing a line.
“I decided to stay old school,” Morris said. “If you’d have found a liquor still on the banks of the river, this is what you’d have been looking at right here. This is what you would have seen out in the woods somewhere.”
Midnight Run boasts a custom-built, 200-gallon all-copper pot with a 35-gallon copper thumper and 250-foot copper condensing coil. It was built to Morris’ specifications by Rockypoint Copper Stills of Kentucky.
To cook, Morris fills the largest pot with his own mixture of fermented grains, sugar and yeast and turns on the heat.
“I’m going to try to cook it as slow and cold as I can,” Morris said.
The vapors build up in the big pot and travel through a pipe into the thumper, a smaller copper kettle, here covered by a wooden barrel.
The vapors coming in from the big pot heat the moisture in the thumper, which releases vapors that move on to the coil.
Morris used a local contractor to modify the coil by adding an air conditioning compressor that forms ice on his coils.
“The quicker you condense the vapor back to a liquid the better,” Morris said. “So the vapor starts down the coil and makes its way to the bottom. And the liquor comes out into the parrot (a series of copper funnels and tube at the base of coils).”
Morris’ current plan is to cook once a week for an output of about 34 gallons, depending on what proof he happens to be bottling.
He plans to to give out samples today – to those of legal drinking age – from 4-10 p.m. during the grand opening of Jefferson County’s first legal moonshine still. “We really believe this has a lot of potential to be good for Bartow,” Morris said. “Nobody puts something like this in a town this size just for themselves.”