Whisky enthusiasts are seeing a rapid rise in upstart craft distillers in parts of the US that don’t make a lick of sense historically. Though our tongues are excited to try all of the innovative flavors and new offerings, we can’t help but wonder, where are the roots of American distilling coming back to life?
The gnarled ancestral roots of moonshine and whisky run deep in the hills of the Ozarks. Distillation–especially illicit distillation–has transformed Ozark history and folklore. The craft and tradition being celebrated and practiced for generations after the Scottish-Irish descendants first came to this part of the New World. Later, Prohibition and the Great Depression significantly increased the number of bootleggers in the region. One enthusiastic contemporary bootlegger I met at a sports bar put it this way, “At that time, stills were as common as hickory trees.”
For a taste of that tradition, my sister Jess and I visited Copper Run Distillery, the first legal distillery in the Ozarks since Prohibition.
In deliciously-named Walnut Shade, Missouri, the Copper Run Distillery looks like a country cottage tucked into deep piles of fallen leaves. Jim Blansit, the charming, jovial founder–with a debonaire smile–met us in the tasting room before taking us on a tour of the facility.
Jim’s enthusiasm is utterly contagious. We were completely engrossed in his detailed history of Copper Run and their distilling process. It became clear the true artistry of their artisanal whiskey rests in his craftsmanship, especially the careful attention he pays to the spirit run. This precise process gets rid of unwanted flavors and aromas created during fermentation that linger in the heads (harsh) and the tails (unwanted flavors) of the whisky. “The heart of the whisky is what we’re after, so we separate it from the heads and the tails.” he explains.
“We focus on making the right cuts to make the whisky taste good today. A year later, it can pick up a lot of the extraction from the types of barrels that we age in. So we get a really nice aging process without taking a long period of time.”
On our way upstairs we met the other owner and director, the rugged and soft-spoken Aris Aristidou. Where Blansit is the master distiller, Aristidou is the visionary leading Copper Run to reach its full potential. He joined us to discuss what Blansit called, “Our newest interesting idea.”
Copper Run’s tradition of offering small allotments ensures quality and creativity take priority over quantity, and recently inspired them to create their Signature Barrel Program (SBP), which allows clients to design a whisky recipe in collaboration with the distillers at Copper Run in order to handcraft their own full or half barrel. That translates to 200-400 bottles of their own unique, private-label, craft whisky. Are visions of your face on a whiskey label dancing in your head? More information on SBP can be found here.
The Ozarks’ rich distilling history inspired a lot of Blansit’s early work as a craft distiller. The ‘old-timers’ who began the tradition knew they had ideal conditions on their hands. “Water here in the Ozarks is limestone water, and void of iron. It’s absolutely perfect for making whisky. The Missouri white oak trees, specifically in the Ozarks, are world famous for making excellent whisky barrels,” he said. With oak leaves blowing in the wind outside, Blansit explained how these barrels contribute to their signature whiskies, ”We order ours with a deep char locally from Independent Stave. The deep char gives us a fast extraction, so a young whisky that goes into these brand new, heavy charred barrels can pick up a lot of caramel, toffee, vanilla, rich color and aroma in a very short period of time.”
By the time we had glasses in front of us, our mouths were watering. We joyfully savored the five different whisky expressions:
- Their “Small Batch Spirit Whiskey” has a smooth, rich mouth-feel and a delicious banana foster note lingered on the finish.
- The other special release, “Hopped Malt Whiskey,” is a double-distilled Copper Creek IPA. What a flavor! It has a beer bite, but is sweet and hoppy with a surprising floral finish.
- My favorite was the special release, “Three Grain Whiskey.” We were the first lucky outsiders to try it. Its hearty, intense start hit me in the face, but its eventual unfolding held so much complexity. The finish is a spicy, sweet cherry-vanilla.
We also tried their two moonshines:
The traditional “Ozark Mountain Moonshine” is the best moonshine I tried in Missouri. It’s smooth, full, and sweet. Their “’Overproof’ Ozark Mountain Moonshine” sits at an impressive 120 proof and explodes like a recently lit match in your mouth. Aristidou laughed, “The finish of the Overproof comes not after it hits your throat, but after it hits your stomach.”
With Branson, Missouri—the Las Vegas of the Ozarks—in their backyard, Copper Run sells a lot of moonshine, or unaged whisky, to tourists. The novelty of genuine Ozark moonshine, nearly a century after prohibition, makes it their number one seller.
Jim impressed us with his flavorful whisky and passion for his vocation. He confessed that craft distilling is an endless mystery, “I am always learning; I’ll end up an old man still trying to figure it out.” In spite of his humble tone, his whiskey confidently speaks of experience and talent that not many distillers possess. Copper Run is the first legal distillery in the Ozarks and, with their roots firmly planted in tradition, their new crop of spirits are bold, and distinctive. Blansit jokingly exclaimed, “Yes! We’re humbly making mighty fine spirits!” We had to agree.