Copper RunMark Scheifelbein
Sippin' History at Copper Run
Moonshine evokes a romantic image. In the Ozarks, it is an image of mountain men, hillbillies, and prohibition-era car chases, but its roots run deeper than that. Elizabethan technology and geographic necessities came together in a trade mastered by Scotsmen, the Irish, and their descendants.
At Copper Run Distillery in Walnut Shade near Branson, the owners get that history. Jim Blansit has an urge born of that Missouri thrift to “make it himself.” He has distilled the long history of spirits into his craft. All the traditions apply, but if you talk with Jim and try a sip, you get an idea that there is something else at work. Making whiskey is fun.
On the day I visit, there is a strong smell of fermentation. Fruity and rich when rum is being made, yet yeasty and bakery-like when corn whiskey is fermenting, your nose knows something is going on here—something very special. Jim’s nose is also becoming a trustworthy source of quality. Copper Run’s Moonshine and Aged Corn Whiskey won the silver medal from the American Distillers Institute in 2010. Copper Run prides itself on creating products with sources straight from the Ozarks.
Ozarkian water, which doesn’t contain iron and has an ideal mineral balance, provides Jim with a perfect starting point. He jokes that other distilleries really have to work at getting their water to the place where Copper Run’s water starts. Even the whiskey barrels come from local timber. You simply won’t find a more locally sourced whiskey.
Copper Run offers up three kinds of liquor: moonshine, whiskey, and rum, each with its own distillation process and handcrafted character, the sum of ingredients and conditions at the distillery. Copper Run rum starts with the smell of cooking molasses and ends up being aged in used sherry casks made of white oak. Here, the rum picks up its rich vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch flavors.
Moonshine, the distillery’s flagship product, has strong grassy notes straight from the still, very much a product of the corn that spawned it. In comparison, the whiskey is aged in white oak sourced from the Ozarks, which gives the corn a mellow character and maturity. If, however, the whiskey ages for two years in a charred white oak barrel, it becomes bourbon.
Jim and Copper Run Distillery are part of a long tradition. An act of necessity and rebellion, the craft of moonshine moved through hill cultures at the frontier line of American settlement. It went wherever the Scotch-Irish went. Scrounge through the wooded and weathered hillsides in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, or the Ozarks, and you find the stills.
When the 59,000-acre Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee was cleared for the Manhattan Project in the early ’40s, 22 stills were found. Even today, it is not uncommon for back-country Missouri hikers to come across the remains of a still up some secluded branch of a creek.
It was a craft perfected in secret, yet a cooperative art practiced through hand-me-down culture. Jim still finds elements of that culture and bits of the lore inspiring. “It was a currency,” Jim says. “A sack of corn equaled a gallon jug, and it was easy to trade and easy to transport. It would be like digging gold out of the backyard. Corn was their gold.”
Moonshining evolved its methods out of necessity. Simple utility and ease of transport were practical reasons for making moonshine. Farmers faced a problem transporting bulky crops, especially through rugged, broken hill country. But distilled, it was another story. Sacks and sacks of low-value corn became liquid gold.
It takes some tinkering to extract that gold, evidence of which is at work here at Copper Run. It is not just a showroom. The work floor is part chemistry lab and part machine shop. A large copper still dominates the room, with vats surrounding its perimeter. Aging barrels line one wall, while a workbench, covered in hoses, fittings, and pumps in various stages of repair, lines another. Although modern equipment has made making moonshine easier, Jim says it used to be difficult labor; you started by carrying everything up a creek branch some place, a far cry from the comic image of the lazy moonshiner napping with his jug.
“When you see this moonshiner half-drunk and asleep, the fact is he was working,” Jim says. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I know how much work it is with electricity and pumps. One old moonshiner I talked to—his job was to carry water up a hill and pour it on that coil for eight hours.”
When the age of the revenuer came and the demands of prohibition increased production, the process changed again. Moonshining became an enterprise. Clandestine methods took on new twists. Technology and enterprise found investors and collaborators.
In the Ozarks, it nestled up to ranchers and bakers. These legitimate businesses could acquire the corn, sugar, and yeast in quantity without raising suspicions. Often they got paid in moonshine for their trouble. This is the era that lingers in our cultural memory. These are the stories swapped by old-timers, who still wander into his shop, wondering what Jim is up to and willing to share their tales.
“I’ve always been fascinated by it, and I always listen,” Jim says. “They want to see if I’m doing it right. They want to taste mine, and I want to hear their stories.” Today everything is legal, resulting in a mountain of paperwork. Because of varying alcohol content within the spirits, the accounting can be a bit of a hassle.
Now they use a hydrometer to check the strength of the spirit. In the old days though, they used fire. The term “100 Proof” refers to the fact that at 50 percent alcohol content, the liquid would sustain a combustion of gunpowder, offering assurance that the alcohol was there.
Even at Copper Run, the romantic notion and whiff of the historic illicit activity lingers and draws people from miles away. Dino Neis, a tour-bus driver from Minnesota, made a side trip while transporting a tour group. When he heard there was a place to get genuine Ozarks Moonshine, he left a load of ladies at a theater in Branson and scooted back up the road for a visit.
Dino has toured all the big distilleries, but Copper Run offers a connection to spirits that a large distillery just can’t match. “For one thing, the barrel room here is nine barrels,” Dino says. “You have a much more hands-on experience. When you have millions of barrels going, you can’t test all of them. I like the craftsmanship of it.” The popularity of the product has created something of a production bottleneck.
When people hear about Copper Run, they stop. When they stop, they buy. Jim’s plans to age his whiskey into bourbon have been hampered by the fact that he can sell the moonshine and whiskey a lot faster than he was expecting, and expansion is under way. A new deck and shop are planned, as well as space for increased production. A vodka product is on the horizon for Copper Run as well as a fruit-flavored moonshine using local fruit.
You can also age your own spirits with the Copper Run Barrel Guild. You can purchase one-gallon, three-gallon, five-gallon, and 10-gallon barrels to start aging your own bourbon directly from Copper Run.