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.”