Legally-produced moonshine is growing across the country, and in Missouri, where the St. Louis area now has a distillery that produces it. Mad Buffalo Distillery is located near Union in rural Franklin County, and this year began selling Thunderbeast Storm, the brand name of their moonshine. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin recently paid a visit to the distillery, where he spoke with company president Chris Burnette:
What is moonshine?
It's technically a corn whisky, it's 100% corn, and it's a white whisky...Maker's Mark and some other larger distilleries have started to release their white whiskeys, which is what they have before they put it into a barrel...we think ours is better, but that's just personal preference...one reason to do an un-aged product is you don't have to wait for the barrel to mature or age the product, so if we started out directly with a bourbon or (another) aged whiskey, we'd be starting now but wouldn't have a product until next fall at earliest.
Do you have any indication as to how this will go over?
It is a niche product, but according to our distributors and other industry professionals, it's on fire...people are loving moonshine.
What proof is white whisky?
For us, it's 100 proof (50% alcohol content), we're doing it a little stronger than most...most will go on the shelves at about 80 proof...under the law you can't put it in a barrel above 125 proof.
How does that compare to illegal moonshine?
Some guys, like if you watch the TV show "Moonshiners," he starts taking it off as it runs off the still and putting it directly into milk jugs...depending on how much heat he's got underneath it and where it is in that run, the first jugs could be 150, 160 proof, maybe even higher, and toward the end it'll start getting weaker and weaker...back in the day, during prohibition and after, in east Tennessee, the reason you called it "proof" was if it was proofed, it means that it was at least 100 proof, so it would catch fire if you lit it...you take the spoon, put it in there and then light it, that was proofing it, to show their customer that it was strong stuff...it's marketing, and marketing is huge in the whiskey business, legal or illegal, so those guys that do the bootleg stuff, they're just as good marketers as Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
Give us a brief history of how far back moonshining goes in your family.
My first relative in (what became the) U.S. came in at about 1630...his name was Jesse Burnette, and the Burnettes have always had stills...back before prohibition it wasn't illegal to have a still, and it was a means of survival...if you're growing corn or grain in the hills, it's much easier to carry to market if you distill it down and take it in...it weighed less, it was easier to handle, and you'd get more money for it...illegal moonshine is still hot in east Tennessee; almost everyone I know, even the most church (going), God-fearing people, have a bottle of moonshine somewhere...they get it from their guy, whoever that may be.
What about the contrast between the taste of legal and illegal moonshine? Do you think people who drink illegal moonshine would (not) buy it legally, thinking it may not be as good?
I think it will be the opposite, I think legal moonshine will be better than what you'd get most of the time illegally...a lot of people who make it illegally, they just do what they've been taught or what they've figured out -- you only know what you know and the guys you happen to know, know...I've talked to scientists -- I've talked to Ph.D.'s in Chemistry, in Physics, and Biology, and guys that helped pick out what yeast I was gonna use, how much corn should we really use in a batch to get the most bang for the buck...when you're just making it illegally, you go find whatever corn you can, you find whatever yeast you can, which will probably happen to be bread yeast, which is not the best for alcohol...we're trying to introduce a modern moonshine that people will actually enjoy and actually want to buy.
The process for making white whiskey.
We've ground about 5,000-6,000 pounds of corn here...we're taking the corn out and putting it in bags so we can store without having to worry about mice...we take our corn, which we do grow on site, we have about 30 acres down in the bottom field...we cut it, harvest it, put it in our grain bin that's also on site, grind it, put it in (50 lb.) bags...when we're ready to mash it, we will take the corn, add it to our water, and then cook it -- we have to bring it up to boiling for about an hour...we get our yeast from (the state of) California, it's American-made, I couldn't find a Missouri yeast provider or manufacturer...maybe one will pop up in a year or so, we try to everything we can locally...we pitch the yeast, and the enzyme liquefies the starch out of the corn, then the enzyme converts it over to sugar, and what you want is a lot of sugar...the yeast comes in, eats that sugar, and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide...we'll let it sit for about five days, and then once it's done there's primary fermentation, which is where it's bubbling really good...our system is kind of strange -- most of your big companies will have one huge mash vat (that'll) hold thousands of gallons, and they'll have a big still that'll hold hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons...some of them are continuously-run stills, they just dump their stuff in all the time...we're nowhere near that, we're a true one-batch-at-a-time system...we take our 200 gallons of water, or mash, it's (also) called beer, and when it's done it'll smell like beer...now if you drink it, you're like "it doesn't taste like beer" because there are no hops in it...we'll take it 30 gallons at a time and put it into one of our 30-gallon stills (we have two), and then we'll run both of those several times for that first beer stripping run, where we're taking all the alcohol and flavor and dumping it into one of our drums...after we've emptied the barrels out we'll clean them for the next batch...then we'll put that batch back into our stills for a proofing run to get our final product...once that's done, we'll do what's mandated by the (authorities) and do our production gauge, check what the proof is, and then we'll get ready to bottle it...we have a pallet of bottles, made in Park Hill, Missouri, bottle it through a bottle machine, (which will) suck it right out of barrel for us, we'll hand-apply the labels, put the bottle toppers on, put them back in the same box they came in, slap one of our labels on it, and then get it ready to ship out to our distributor.
Almost all ingredients/tools/containers from Missouri
Most of our labels are made in St. Louis...bottles are made in Park Hill, our mashers came from Doniphan, Missouri...our corn comes from on-site, yeast comes from (the state of ) California, but I'm working on that...bags came from the grain store up the road, so we tried to get everything that we can as local as we can...our tables and chairs came from St. Charles' last city auction.
A nine-day process, and a friends & family-run business
In theory, it'll take nine days, from the time we put the corn into our masher to start...I'm hoping to try to cut that down a little bit, but I think it's gonna end up being nine days per batch...I've got a really good team -- my dad (Terry Burnette) worked for M&M Mars for 30 years, doing safety, environmental management, when it comes to corporate manufacturing he's a wealth of knowledge...Cole (William "Cole" Uphouse, Chris' brother-in-law) is a federal law enforcement officer, but he's also a fabricator -- he can make just about anything and he's got a good eye for it...Matthew Schimmel (family friend) has an MBA, he's got a good business head, a strong back, and he's going to be our Sales Manager...my wife Elise has a Master's in Design and Marketing, with undergraduate studies in Photography and Education...I have a law degree, a Master's in non-profit administration and Political Science...we've got an engineer on our board, we've got an aircraft mechanic, and another guy is a machinist who worked for Boeing for about 30 years...so we have a lot of fabrication, sales and business experience on the board, so it makes my job a lot easier.
The story behind the buffalo logo
Elise did all our branding and logo design...our logo, the buffalo, was one of her mom's necklaces -- her mom (Judy Sass Uphouse, who passed away in 2004) was an advocate for Native American rights, so that's where we got the name for the company...she loved buffalo, and (Elise) thought she would have loved it...Cole said "mom would be mad if we didn't have a buffalo in the name," so it became Mad Buffalo.
Moment of truth: Marshall takes a sip
"I'm tasting it now...mmm, that is pretty good!" Burnette: "If you notice, it's a little sweeter -- I don't know if you've had any of the moonshines on the market, (but) it's a little sweeter."