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 t 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.”