By Richard Thomas
In their quest for authenticity most legal moonshiners try to lay claim to some kind of illegal connection, but few come across as authentic as Silver Trail Distillery’s Spencer Balentine. With family roots in Western Kentucky ‘shining, Balentine can talk the talk, so much so that he appeared as “The Legal Guy” in Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners. He walks the walk too, as his LBL Moonshine can show you.
RT: Most people associate moonshining with the hill country, but you are a Western Kentucky guy with your own family roots in moonshining. Can you tell us a bit of the family story?
SB: Yes the LBL is as far West as you can go in Kentucky. I never thought of us being that different in our moonshine practices but the more I go into it, the more I realized the LBL “Between the Rivers” area was a moonshine state all it’s own.
Nearly 100 % of the stills were designed and built by my grand uncle Casey Jones. They are so unique that one is displayed in the state police museum in Frankfort to represent our area. The round pot with the worm is displayed to represent the rest of the state. The genius of the square pot is the speed of production. I have a round pot and it flows a gallon in 8 minutes. The square pot flows one gallon in 4 minutes.
We are the ultimate craft distillery: we have our own family designed pots and we run my great grand father’s recipe that he developed in the 1920’s. After eight International SIP Awards, we developed a set of questions that we asked other distillers both large and small and found out that grandfather did one “thing” that no one else does in their recipe. I think this is why the corn flavor carries through so well even at the 100 proof. I call it “1950’s Style” because that’s when I remember Dad and his brothers making and hauling. They weren’t bootleggers, they were wholesalers just like me except that I have color TV and fans in my distillery.
RT: How difficult did you find it to make the transition into distilling?
SB: Growing up to age ten in LBL, moonshine was so much in our culture that a lot of days I’ve one boy say to the other “They got Daddy last night” and we really didn’t think much about it. That was just a risk of the business.
My first memory at age four is getting to ride from the loading point (Grandmother’s store) to our house nearby. Dad drove with a heavy brake and gas so when he stopped hard, I remember the sound “Clunk – Clunk – Clunk” of 150 1 gallon jugs coming to rest. When I made my first gallon, I shook it and teared up and 54 years melted away. I had the recipe and still designs plus I had 28 years retail business experience so it really was much of a stretch other than deciphering the mind boggling government regulations. That was brutal!
RT: You appeared on The Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners as “The Legal Guy.” Now plenty of people think that there is no such thing as “legal moonshine,” in that view illegality matters more than how it’s made. What do you say to that? And do you get people who come into Silver Trail making that point, saying if it isn’t illicit, it isn’t moonshine?
SB: The Moonshiners show draws the home distiller group and they seem more interested in techniques. I have had the “if it’s legal, it’s not real moonshine” argument come up in my museum tours but I counter that with “My recipe has been illegal a lot longer than legal.”