Now It's My Turn: Breaking into the Moonshine Business

Troylyn Ball went from isolated mother caring for two special-needs kids to the maker of moonshine sold at a Disney resort. How did that happen?

by Leah Koenig
troylyn ball image
Photograph: Peter Frank Edwards

Troylyn Ball is holding court behind the polished wood bar in the tasting room of Troy & Sons, her distillery in Asheville, North Carolina. She is cheerfully chatting with customers while handing out samples of a cocktail consisting of macerated fresh fruit, simple syrup, lemon juice and moonshine. Yes, moonshine—the scorchingly high-proof, unaged corn whiskey made famous during the Prohibition era for being distilled illegally in bathtubs and backwoods across southern Appalachia under the light of the moon.

Most of the customers in the tasting room have never tried moonshine and are eager to sample what Ball calls America’s classic spirit. Those who have tried it seem delighted by Troy & Sons’ version, which is smooth and deeply flavored, with none of the unpleasant burn common to most moonshine. “This is what people in the mountains call keeper moonshine,” Ball explains to the crowd, meaning it’s something you drink by choice, not because it’s the only thing around.

Today, Ball, 54, is the only woman in the U.S. legally producing moonshine and one of just five female distillery owners, according to the American Distilling Institute. Before 2008 she had never attempted to distill anything, let alone America’s most notorious drink. Her days were focused instead on caring for her three sons, two of whom, Marshall and Coulton, have a genetic medical condition that mirrors severe, nonverbal autism and has left them with respiratory problems and in wheelchairs. (Her youngest son, Luke, who is adopted, does not have special needs.)

From 1986, when Marshall was born, through 2004, when the family moved from Austin, Texas, to their current home in Asheville, Ball’s life was dominated by, as she describes it, “keeping my beautiful boys alive.” Her responsibilities included around-the-clock care, assisted feedings, frequent visits to the hospital when one or both boys suffered from seizures or pneumonia and road trips to specialists. Austin’s notorious allergy season meant Marshall and Coulton often ended up on ventilators during the winter months.

The boys’ condition also made everyday activities like meeting other mothers in the park impossible. Ball’s husband, Charlie, spent most of his time supporting the family financially as an engineer and real estate developer. “Charlie is an amazing and dedicated dad,” Ball says. “But between the hours of 7 in the morning and 7 at night, the bulk of our sons’ care fell on my shoulders. Honestly, when the boys were growing up, I felt incredibly isolated.”

The first hint of change came after the family moved to Asheville—which has a shorter and less arduous allergy season than Austin—to be near the eco-friendly housing community that her husband was developing through his business, Ball Properties. “In North Carolina, we finally celebrated three Christmases in a row with both boys feeling well,” Ball says. The family also qualified for federal assistance through the Client Assistance Program (CAP), entitling Marshall and Coulton to daytime care that otherwise would have been too expensive. For the first time in nearly two decades, with her two older boys in their late teens, Ball had a chance to focus on a full-time career outside the home.

Not long after the move, Ball tasted her first moonshine. “If the local mountain people like you, they bring you homemade moonshine instead of chocolate chip cookies,” she says. Ball has always loved a well-made drink, but it was moonshine’s unique taste and deeply rooted American heritage that captured her imagination. “This is America’s original spirit,” she says. “I wanted to make a drink that explicitly celebrated moonshine’s ties to our country.”

Ball persuaded a neighbor to introduce her to some of North Carolina’s underground moonshiners—old-timers who, in order to maintain tradition, control the strength of their product or save money, continue to make the drink illegally. (Americans are prohibited from brewing distilled spirits without a license; that’s not true for beer and wine.) For two years, she trailed them into the mountains to watch them make whiskey. The process includes grinding corn, boiling it with water, letting the mixture (called mash) ferment with yeast for several days and then reheating and distilling it.

During that time, Ball’s research revealed that while the field of artisanal spirit making in the U.S. is quickly growing, a high-quality moonshine was not yet available. Despite her lack of experience, she had a gut feeling that making moonshine might be her calling.

In 2008, Ball sought out a seventh-generation North Carolina farmer named John McEntire after hearing about the heirloom white-corn variety called Crooked Creek he grew at his farm outside Asheville. She had learned that moonshine’s taste “sinks or swims on the quality of its corn,” as she puts it, and she’d heard that McEntire’s corn was among the best—pure and distinctively rich in taste. Impressed by his long-standing tie to the land, his corn and his connections to local moonshiners, she asked him to help her learn the art of distilling on a small licensed still on his property. Convincing him was no simple task: Ball was still a newcomer to the area, and moonshining is traditionally considered a man’s job because of the manual labor it requires. But after getting to know her and seeing that her intentions for spreading the gospel of good moonshine were genuine, McEntire decided to help. He agreed to sell her his corn for $20 a bushel (she needed only two bushels to get started).

Ball spent hours each day on McEntire’s farm, “whether it was 85 degrees or 20,” she says, refining her product until it tasted like the keeper moonshine she loved—crisp, mellow and pure, with a touch of vanilla, akin to a high-quality vodka.

Then, just as she was beginning to draw up business plans for Troy & Sons, the recession hit. The eco-friendly development that Ball Properties had recently put on the market sat virtually unsold. Within months, the family had spent a large chunk of savings. “After being fairly successful developers for many years, we were suddenly facing very different circumstances,” Ball says. They needed another source of income, but it was a risky time to start a business. Even her husband was openly skeptical, which she says was especially hard. “I really just had to believe in myself,” she says.

Ball struggled to raise the $750,000 to $1 million needed to get her business off the ground: She had to buy a boiler, a mash tank, a fermenter tank, a 530-gallon German copper still and large quantities of glass bottles and corn, among other supplies. She also had to hire distillery workers. “We couldn’t borrow a dime,” Ball says, since the unsold real estate saddled her family with too many illiquid holdings for her to be approved for a business loan. Meanwhile, she encountered layers of red tape while trying to obtain a distilled-spirits permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The permit eventually came through, but not without a struggle. “If one was crossed incorrectly, the application would be kicked to the bottom of the pile,” she says.

At one point, the Balls’ financial situation got so bad that they risked losing their home—an experience that would particularly devastate a family with two kids who require modified bathrooms, beds and doorways. “I really stressed over where we would take our boys if that happened,” Ball says. “Once, I cried so hard that I hyperventilated and had to call 911.”

But by early 2010 she felt confident enough to share her drink with two friends: Frank Moretz, a local anesthesiologist, and Oscar Wong, a fellow special-needs parent and owner of the successful Asheville-based Highland Brewing Company. After tasting the moonshine, they both decided to invest in the enterprise. Their backing persuaded the bank to lend Ball $500,000, despite the unsold real estate holdings. Wong also leased Ball an unused section of his brewery, giving the company the home base it needed and built-in foot traffic from the brewery’s popular tours and music events. Along with $20,000 of what Ball calls her “meager personal savings,” she was finally able to turn her vision into a business.

Almost immediately, Ball was hit with a new round of setbacks. On her first day of production, she realized her $8,000 bottle-labeling machine wasn’t calibrated correctly for the shape of the bottle she had designed. On top of that, none of the 6,000 corks fit. The bottles cost $2.43 each, so she couldn’t dump them; even the corks cost 50 cents apiece. “We spent years trying to get to this point, and we couldn’t even ship the bottles,” Ball says. So she hand-labeled each bottle—a tedious job—and persuaded the cork supplier to mail her the correct size for free. After a several-week delay, her first shipment went to distributors.

With the bottling logistics sorted out (Troy & Sons continues to label its small-batch moonshine bottles manually), the company turned to its most pressing struggle: figuring out how to get its product from the distillery to people’s glasses. Right now the company relies on legwork and word of mouth more than traditional advertising. “I have spent much of the past six months traveling to Miami and Nashville and Atlanta, creating personal relationships and bringing our spirits to the distributors, chefs, bartenders and restaurant managers who can introduce it to customers,” Ball says.

Those logged hours were exhausting, but they paid off. In 2011, the company’s first full year, Troy & Sons produced 5,000 six-bottle cases of moonshine. The product grossed $900,000 in sales (of which Troy & Sons netted about half), allowing Ball to begin paying back her investors. She estimates that the company is on track to double production in 2013, at which point, she says, it should begin to turn a profit.

Troy & Sons also expanded distribution to Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, and it is aiming to be available in stores in California and New York by the end of 2013. James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Brock has started using the moonshine in a cocktail at his Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant, Husk. And celebrity chef Todd English told Ball he now buys as much Troy & Sons moonshine as he does Jack Daniel’s for his Orlando, Florida, seafood restaurant, Bluezoo.

Most significantly, Troy & Sons recently made its way onto the radar of Disney World. Before approaching Disney, a major, influential liquor buyer because of its large network of resorts and restaurants, Ball had been warned about the difficulty of breaking in. But she believed her product could speak for itself. After several calls to Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge, Ball finally managed to book an in-person tasting meeting. “We hit it out of the park,” she says. The resort was impressed with the taste and now serves a specialty cocktail crafted with Troy & Sons’ moonshine. “Companies spend years trying to get on Disney’s menu,” Ball says. “So this felt incredibly validating.”

Today, Ball’s husband works full time as the company’s master distiller while maintaining Ball Properties’ developments. (High-end real estate remains largely static, but Ball said the business closes enough property sales to “keep things floating.”) Luke, a college sophomore, helps out when he is home. The company also employs three distillery workers; three to five part-time bottlers, depending on the season; and a handful of independent sales contractors. This year Ball was able to begin paying herself a salary.

Marshall and Coulton, now in their midtwenties, live at home, and Ball remains a hands-on mom. Meanwhile, thanks to the care-assistance provided by CAP, she is also free to serve as the company’s primary ambassador. After years of putting her own dreams on the back burner, Ball is living her bliss. “I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t done all I could for my boys while they were growing up,” she says. “I knew my time would come later in life.”

 Leah Koenigis the author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen.

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First Published Tue, 2013-08-06 10:37

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