MARION, Va. - In one block on Main Street in Marion, you can enjoy first-rate barbecue at Wolfe's, watch live bluegrass performances at the historic Lincoln Theatre, and rest your head at the equally venerable General Francis Marion Hotel.
But what drew me was the opportunity to sample some Virginia moonshine at its source.
Over the last few years, I had noticed moonshine products on the shelves of liquor stores in Virginia and heard that some places were even hosting moonshine tastings. So I persuaded my wife, Juli, to join me on a weekend drive to have our first taste of moonshine in a place where it is made, in the back of a store on Marion's Main Street.
Marion is a picturesque town of about 6,000 alongside Interstate 81 about 100 miles southwest of Roanoke. One of its landmarks is the art deco Mayan Revival-style Lincoln Theatre, built in 1929 as a cinema and renovated and repurposed in recent years as a performing arts venue. It is home to the PBS bluegrass music series Song of the Mountains. Just a few steps away is the General Francis Marion Hotel, touted as one of the finest hotels in the South when it opened in 1927. Renovated in 2006, it now houses the Black Rooster restaurant and bar.
When Juli and I rolled into town about noon on a Saturday, we stopped for some tasty barbecue at Wolfe's before strolling down to the Appalachian Mountain Spirits Mercantile & Stillhouse Store to inquire about a tour of the Virginia Sweetwater Distillery, which is housed in the back.
We were greeted by co-owners Scott and Dana Schumaker, as well as three flame-point Siamese cats that had the run of the place. The Schumakers sell gifts, crafts, and books in the front; the back area is licensed as a Virginia ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control Department) store, where they sell mostly their own brands. Scott informed us that his distiller, Matt DeHart, had already fired up the still in the back room and that he would be happy to give us a demonstration.
Matt introduced us to Miss Kelsey, one of the operation's two stills. Named after the couple's daughter, Miss Kelsey is the smaller of the two, holding 30 gallons. The other still, Miss Dana, is on the couple's property on the side of a mountain about two miles from downtown Marion.
With a 200-gallon capacity, Miss Dana produces 95 percent of the distillery's output.
Matt gave a quick rundown of what moonshine is and how the still works. It's simply corn liquor that hasn't been aged, he said. When aged in barrels, it takes on colors and flavors from the barrels and becomes whiskey.
He pointed to a gauge that showed the alcohol content of the liquor. As he opened a spigot to release a jet of clear moonshine into a bucket, the gauge read 90 percent, or 180 proof. Water would be used to dilute the moonshine until it attained the desired level - 85 proof for the standard Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine, and 101 proof for the stronger Shiners' Gold, which currently is available only at the Stillhouse Store in Marion.
We decided it was too early in the day to begin our $7.50 tasting, so we returned early in the evening, as most of Marion's visitors were converging on the Lincoln Theatre to see a live performance of Song of the Mountains. Matt, stationed behind the bar, explained that Virginia law limits tasters to three half-ounce shots of their products - the regular moonshine, Shiners' Gold, or the distillery's War Horse Whisky (Scott uses the Scottish spelling), winner of a gold medal at the Great American Distillers Festival for the last two years.
We could also choose small shots of the moonshine flavored with peach, blackberry, or apple pie "mixin's." Juli and I started with the regular moonshine, which was smooth and warming, leaving no aftertaste. I preferred the Shiners' Gold, which had more bite and flavor, and the smoke-tinged whiskey. Juli tried the moonshine flavored with peach, which she liked best, and apple pie, which she found a little too sweet.
We took our time, sipping from our shot glasses, listening to bluegrass gospel music, and letting the experience wash over us as more people came in for tastings. After a while, Scott relieved Matt at the bar, opened a bottle, and let us have a taste of a new product he is developing - a whiskey flavored with the sweet smoke of red oak from his mountain property. He called it Revelations.
It had a rich, smoky flavor, and at 120 proof, it was a little strong for Juli's taste. But I thought it was - well, a revelation. Scott plans to have a 91 proof version on the market by summer, and I promised him I would be a customer.
The four small samples of moonshine and whiskey added up to the equivalent of slightly more than one mixed drink - but even so, Juli and I were pleasantly glowing from our experience. There was no need to drive anywhere. Right across the street, our dinner and room at the General Francis awaited us.
Moonshine Over Marion
At Appalachian Mountain Spirits, home of the Virginia Sweetwater Distillery, tours typically run 45 minutes and are by appointment, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday.
Location: 112 E. Main St., Marion, Va.
Distillery information: 276-378-0867, www.virginianwhiskeys.com
General information: www.marionva.orgEndText