by Glen Herbert
“Listen,” says Nance. “It sounds like rain on a roof.” And it really does. Large vats line the room, each filled with a roiling mixture of grain and yeast. The gas being released as bubbles is responsible for the sound and the smell, which is somewhere between beer and bread and turpentine.
It’s an attractive facility, miles away conceptually and physically from the clandestine stills that come to mind whenever we think of moonshine. The Copper Barrel Distillery, which was established on North Wilkesboro’s main street in 2015, is a boutique on par with the micro-wineries of Napa Valley. The building, once home to a furniture manufacturer, has been restored to bring out its character as well as its heritage. The idea behind the distillery itself is one built on those concepts as well: character and heritage.
After striking up a conversation which Roger Lee “Buck” Nance in the showroom, he pulled us aside, asking in a hushed tone if we’d like to see the machinery. While the operation is entirely legal, operating under a complex mesh of regulations and licenses, for most of his life, Nance has lived somewhere outside of the law, or at least on the fringes of it. He knew Junior Johnson and had a hand in some of the white liquor (he doesn’t call it moonshine in conversation, rather white liquor or corn liquor or just shine) that Johnson transported came from Nance’s stills or those he tended while he was learning the craft.
And while we might be attracted to the outlaw side of the tradition, for Nance, it’s about the craft. He’s part of a folk tradition, one that by necessity was passed orally, secretively, from one moonshiner to the next, and which continues to focus his attention. He’s proud of that tradition, and guards it even now. Standing next to the fermenters, it’s that pride that shows, not just in the recipe, but in the process, and his place as a recipient of the knowledge needed to drive it forward and, perhaps, pass it along.
Certainly, it’s moonshine, and the traditions that surround it that have largely defined Nance’s life. The first thing he’s known for is a bust in 2009, one which netted 929 gallons of white liquor for the authorities—the product of two months of investigation—and linked Nance’s name to the largest moonshine bust in North Carolina history.
When he wasn’t off in the hills, Nance was a welder, and his knowledge of metal is probably on par with his knowledge of moonshine. Most of the stainless he uses is 301, some of it 302, whatever that means. The last tank in the process before bottling has two large copper coils within it, and Nance tells us to get up on the ladder in order to take a look. They don’t look anything like what you have in mind when you think of a still. They’re clean, perfect, set within a clear vat of stainless steel.
Near the spout that the finished product is drawn from is a small glass jar with a length of copper wire twisted around its neck to create a handle. Nance uses the jar—its one he’s had for decades apparently—to gauge proof. “They came with their equipment, you know, and took some samples,” Nance says of the regulators tasked with granting a license to the outfit. “I told them that it was 142, and I was right. And that’s a true story. He told me that if they ever need to calibrate the equipment, they’ll come to me.” He demurs, knowing that it sounds a bit like a fish story. “But that’s the truth. I can tell by the bubbles. How big they are, how fast they move.” And he can.
“Feel that heat? That’s how we heat the room. There’s no heating or air conditioning in here. We brought these in here [two large plastic containers filled with the waste product of fermentation] to keep it warm when it gets cold like it did last night.” The waste material is given to local farmers to feed to stock, as it’s a rich source of protein and nutrients. A local rancher feeds it to his beef cattle, says Nance, and some of that beef finds its way back as a thank you.
It’s easy to think first of the lawlessness of moonshine, and for anyone living beyond the regions in which it has been made for generations, that’s not just the first thing, but the only thing, they are likely to know about it. But there’s a story here, and it’s not about drunkenness, or violence, or fast cars. Perhaps it has been a fine line, at least since the 1920s and the enactment of Prohibition, but it’s what’s on the other side of that line that appeals to Nance. For him, white liquor is a symbol of autonomy. It’s a link to the past, with the recipes and practices honed through trial and error, passed along by word of mouth. And, as odd as this might seem to people who haven’t experienced it directly, it’s about community. The basket outside the door, the barter of this for that. Through those things—and certainly there are many in the region who have jars that they’ve received that they’ve never opened—it’s perhaps less about the product than it is an awareness of place, and people, and a connection to the past as well as those who are with us, today, in the present.