Old Spirits

moonshiners02I am in the passenger’s seat of a Chevy Silverado winding through the foothills of northeast Georgia, trying to learn the story of Carlos Lovell. But fifteen minutes into the drive, the man has barely uttered ten words from behind the wheel, and frankly, his deep, jowl-draped frown has silenced me in fear that the wrong question might land me in the ditch. The only sounds in the cab are Rush Limbaugh on the AM radio and the moan of the Chevy’s V8 pulling us up the narrow Habersham County mountain roads.

Carlos Lovell is eighty-six, and this interview was definitely not his idea. I don’t think he even knows my name or whom I’m with; he never asked. He refers to me as “that reporter fella”—even when I’m standing five feet from him. He tells his employees I “ask too many questions.” At any rate, I get the feeling the old man would much rather be working. Besides, he has never been much of a talker. For almost half his life, his family’s income—not to mention his freedom—depended on discretion.

Lovell was a moonshiner. At age sixteen, he started cooking illegal liquor and selling it by the truckload throughout North Georgia, right under the noses of local authorities. He and his brothers learned the practice from their father, Virgil, who himself had learned it from his uncle. Off and on for a hundred years, beginning in the 1860s, remote patches of these timberlands were thick with the warm scent of boiling corn and the thump, rattle, and hiss of a Lovell copper still.

The Lovells were far from alone. Since the eighteenth century, alcohol was a common by-product of some American farms, not unlike butter or cheese that came from excess milk. Barrels of whiskey were more valuable than silos of corn. Some farmers kept it for themselves; others sold it. In colonial times, whiskey was bartered as hard currency. But in 1862, to help pay for the Civil War, the federal government reinstated an old tax on distilled spirits (President Jefferson Davis outlawed the production of liquor to save grain for the Confederate Army). After the war, homemade spirits were a major, if illegal, commodity in the devastated agrarian South. By 1880 the Internal Revenue Service was seizing about 1,000 illegal stills a year. In 1924, the height of Prohibition, 13,023 moonshine operations were broken up across the U.S., and 2,824—more than a fifth of them—were busted in Georgia alone. The prevalence of illicit booze in Georgia gave rise to the mythical Southern moonshiner in a souped-up jalopy, racing police through twisted mountain roads, past still fires strewn like Christmas lights across the Smokies and by Appalachian springs spouting pure white lightning. Even today, it’s not unheard of for hunters in these parts to stumble upon a woodland still—since 2011 the Georgia Department of Revenue has dismantled eleven, most of them small operations evidently used for private consumption.

One night four years ago, as he tells it, Carlos Lovell rolled over in bed and decided that, after forty years out of the business, he would make whiskey again. And this time, he’d do it by the book. With savings from two decades of dealing in mountain real estate, Lovell built a distillery and expanded a warehouse right off of State Route 13, twenty-some miles from the old Lovell homestead on the outskirts of Clarkesville, the Habersham seat. He plastered the name Ivy Mountain—site of several of his old stills—on the distillery’s water silo, slapped his guarantee of the 150-year-old family recipe right beneath his picture on the label, and waited for the cash to flow like the old days, now clean and easy.

In one respect, Lovell’s timing could not have been more providential. After all, we are living in the age of the artisan, when the quest for “authenticity” means we’ll gladly pay $8 for a quart of lion’s mane mushrooms and $10 for a few ounces of fresh pasta. Why should our booze be any different? And what could be more “of-the-earth” than rediscovering the methods of hill folk who’ve crafted their own liquor for generations?

But in many ways, the wilderness of the modern marketplace has been more ruthless than any booze-sniffing police dog or power-tripping revenue agent. The artisanal movement means Ivy Mountain Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey is competing for shelf space not only with the barrel-chested Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, but also with a cluster of other like-minded boutique distilleries that have sprouted all over the region. In Lovell’s mind, the whiskey itself, born of experience and instinct that reaches back through his bloodline, processed with hard work and care, and sold for an honest price, should be enough to set Ivy Mountain apart. But his daughter, his employees, and the marketing firm they hired know that nowadays consumers pay for image as much as product. They believe people will line up to buy “legal moonshine” straight from the mountain still of a Georgia legend. They just need to know the legend.

That’s why they’re prodding Lovell to lead public tours of his distillery, why they have this farmer who sprouts and grinds his own corn slouched behind a fold-up table at Costco, signing bottles of his 86-proof lifeblood alongside the hair-netted warehouse club employees who hawk toothpick meatballs and samples of granola.

And today, it’s the reason Lovell is reluctantly chauffeuring me, a complete stranger in broad daylight, to the mountain spring that, according to his spiffy new website, “the Lovell family has used for 150 years to make their legendary moonshine.”

We climb down from the truck, and Lovell leads me, sans blindfold, through the trees and across the hillside to a squat stone springhouse dating to the mid-1800s. Behind the building, a stream of cold, clear water runs downhill. Lovell tells me that, for a couple of decades while he was retired, he leased this land to a company that bottled it as drinking water. There’s unmistakable pride in his voice, but I also detect a touch of disdain—as if using the water for that purpose had been a terrible waste.

Back in Lovell’s office—an empty-shoebox room in the back of the distillery with a bare desk, three mismatched chairs, a phone on the cement floor, and a window looking out to the gleaming copper-and-steel industrial still that stands atop a five-foot riser—the boss lays down rules for our interview. When I pull out my iPhone and ask to record, Lovell waves it away. Another rule: No names. “Most of the people I did business with are dead,” he says. “But their family might still be around.”

Read the rest at atlantamagazine.com