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Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery soon to sell direct to customers
New legislation for distilleries, breweries takes effect Sept. 1
A-Distillery Bill pic 1
Jeff Chastain shakes a bottle of whiskey at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery to examine the bubbles. The practice allows Chastain to determine its proof, which fell somewhere around 105 and 106, he said. - photo by Allie Dean Dawson County News

Jeff Chastain makes moonshine the way his great Uncle Ben did, following a century and a half-old recipe that turns mash to corn whiskey.

First, sprouted or germinated corn is cooked at 150 degrees, a process that converts the starch into natural sugars.

The cooked corn mash is then cooled and left to ferment. The sugars turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide, a process that can be seen, as well as smelled, as bubbles rise to the surface.

The corn beer is pumped into a still and heated with steam, an even heat source, to 212 degrees. When the temperature hits 173 degrees, the alcohol will begin to boil. The alcohol vaporizes, and is redistilled into "heads" and "tails."

The "heart" of the vapor is what the distiller will catch and use, as heads are poisonous and tails are bitter.

The heart is caught and stored in tanks until there is enough to be tempered, run through a charcoal filter, and bottled.

Chastain, whose family made moonshine in Dawsonville for four generations, explained the process on a cloudy day in mid-May at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery.

He pulled out a hydrometer to demonstrate how to test the proof, or alcohol content. He said there is another way to do it, one that very few people left alive can do.

He shakes a half-empty bottle of clear liquid, and points out the way the bubbles create a bridge from one side to the other.

He determines that the liquid is 105 or 106 proof. The moonshine was bottled when he was absent, so his guess is based on his knowledge of the bubbles only. But no one would dare question him.

Known affectionately as Dr. Moonshine, Chastain is one of the distillers at the still owned by Cheryl Wood, a ninth generation moonshiner who opened the business after a promise to her mother. The rest is history.

But Wood still finds herself up against antiquated laws that harken back to the days when moonshine was run illegally through the heart of Dawsonville.

This month, Wood is celebrating recent legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly, a bill that will allow her to sell ‘shine straight from the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery starting September 1.

The bill, Senate Bill 85, was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 8 and will allow breweries and distilleries across Georgia to sell their product straight from the source, without relying solely on sales of wholesalers and distributors and without jumping the hoop of charging tour fees.

SB 85 allows for sale of distilled spirits up to 500 barrels per year to individuals who are on the premises for both on-site consumption and off-site consumption. Each barrel of spirits is the equivalent of 53 gallons.

Sales for consumption off the premises shall not exceed 2,250 milliliters per customer per day. That means that customers at the distillery could purchase up to 3 bottles of Georgia Corn Whiskey, Georgia Mountain Apple Pie, or White Lightning, which come in 750 milliliter bottles.

Customers could purchase up to six bottles of Dawsonville Rye Whiskey, which comes in 375 milliliter bottles.

The change comes at a perfect time for Wood and the operators of the distillery, which currently calls the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame home.

Wood said that now thanks to the new legislation, the one business will become two: she will continue to operate tours, but will also be able to sell more moonshine than the distillery could probably produce.

The distillery will also continue to sell its product through package store distributors across the state. Dawsonville moonshine is currently sold in approximately 400 package stores across Georgia, with some in South Carolina and Tennessee.

Language in the bill prevents the distillery from undercutting distributor prices.

This is not the first legislation change that has benefited the distillery. When the still opened in October 2012, a bill that was only just passed that year by the general assembly allowed for distilleries to provide visitors samples of their product, up to a half ounce of spirits per person, per day, when touring a distillery.

Then, a bill passed in 2015 allowed distilleries to charge a fee for tours, which would serve as a means to give a souvenir bottle of their product to 21 and older visitors. Craft beer breweries were also able to charge for tours and include 72 ounces of product in their tour price for legal-age attendees.

"It's changed so much," Wood said. "When we first opened you couldn't even get a bottle, and now you can with a tour. And soon more than one bottle, thanks to Rep. Kevin Tanner and Bill Elliott, who helped add this on to the brewery bill. It's just antiquated laws honestly."

Indeed, Georgia is the last of the 50 states to allow direct sales at distilleries and breweries.

The changes have been touted as a means to bolster small businesses and tourist destinations in rural Georgia. With such a strong connection between moonshine and the history of Dawsonville (including NASCAR and racing legend Bill Elliott, who has a product at the distillery named for him, the 109 proof White Lightning), being able to offer whiskey to those visiting is the icing on the cake.

"This will bring more revenue for everybody," Wood said. "Already it brings people in who are not from Dawsonville, and they always ask about places to eat and things to do. Tourists are the best kind of customers, they come in and spend a day or a weekend, spend money, and leave."

This year is also a big one for Dawsonville's history with the 50th anniversary of the Mountain Moonshine Festival. This year will be the first that attendees can buy a bottle (or a few) of moonshine, legally, from the distillery downtown.

"We get a lot of people from different countries and different states so for them to take home more than one bottle will be really good," Cheryl said. "A lot of times they aren't coming back the next week or want more than one kind. I would hope it would spur more production."

And that's a victory for the small racing town, which Wood said was the first in Georgia to have an all-night gas station due to the high volume of cars running moonshine.

At a recent chamber luncheon, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, spoke about the importance of the bill on economies in Georgia that lean heavily on tourism.

"Craft beer and spirits have come a long way from the days when certain individuals would run that product across these mountains up here," Ralston said. "I like to tell people that my district was the birthplace of craft spirits in Georgia, between Gilmer and Dawson and Lumpkin counties. But this industry today is really made up of businesses that put people to work. They have created jobs and become a tourism engine in many towns across Georgia, such as right here in Dawsonville.

"I believe business means jobs and jobs mean opportunity and as long as I have the opportunity and honor of serving all of you, we will encourage innovation and support small businesses like our craft brewers and distillers."

Nothing was cooking at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery on Monday, but a vat of corn mash sat bubbling in the corner, awaiting its turn to become liquid gold.