Tennessee moonshine has a notorious reputation, but sometimes it’s just good business. For the Kelley’s, Branchwater Moonshine is a family affair.
While roaming through Tennessee, the abundance of billboards advertising distilleries—both whiskey and moonshine—caught my attention. The names and labels evoke an obvious sense of pride both in craftsmanship and in their home state, something that I can appreciate as a Texan. So taking the long way home, my friend and I stopped in at Branchwater Moonshine Distillery in Winchester, TN, for a tour. Purely for educational purposes, of course.
Shiela Kelley runs the retail side of Branchwater, while her son, Bud, the founder of the distillery oversees the moonshine operation. His dad, aunts, and probably a few cousins are all involved to varying degrees, volunteering their time to make sure this relatively new business survives.
A Business Is Born
When Bud Kelley told his mom that he wanted to move back to his hometown and open a moonshine distillery, Shiela’s response wasn’t very encouraging. “I said, ‘This is the Bible Belt, there’s no way Franklin county is going to let you do that.’”
Undeterred, Bud put together a presentation and took it to the powers that be—who thought it was a great idea! The city leaders even helped him find the perfect location right off the town square in Winchester. The spacious building with exposed brick walls seems like it was built for the very purpose of housing the stills that brought the business to life.
It was quiet when we arrived after lunch. (Word to the wise, be sure to eat before you take a distillery tour!) Shiela explained the process of making moonshine, from the sour mash to the distilling of the clear, 101 proof spirit. As she showed us around, she told us the prequel to the distillery’s opening in 2018.
Moonshine in the Blood
When Bud told his grandfather that he was opening a moonshine distillery, “Pa” didn’t seem at all surprised. Turns out, making moonshine was a family tradition—a secret that neither Bud nor Shiela knew anything about.
During the prohibition, Bud’s great-grandfather Dave made moonshine with the help of his wife, Edna. As the story goes, he never got caught for bootlegging because the county judge was his best customer and distributor.
Pa grew up learning how to make moonshine and even remembered the recipe. He had many memories as a young boy, riding to different stores on the wagon to buy the main ingredients: sugar and corn. They had to go to different stores, because if they’d bought too much in one place, people would have gotten suspicious of their operation.
The family business is fully licensed and legal these days. Like many small businesses, Branchwater Distillery experienced the 2020 hit of being “nonessential.” To compensate for the lack of traffic and help keep things afloat, Bud pivoted by adding hand sanitizer to the product lineup. As sanitizer was just about impossible to find in stores, the steady source from Branchwater was much appreciated, especially by the medical professionals in and around the area.
Bright Days Ahead for Branchwater Moonshine Distillery
As things return to normal, the folks at Branchwater Distillery enjoy seeing thirsty locals and curious travelers come into the store. They occasionally bring in live music and invite guests to sit and sip for a while. They look forward to the day when they can resume their full-day moonshine making classes (which honestly sound like a great experience).
Straight Up is the current spirit offered by Branchwater Distillery. Their new Sipping Shine is ready for labeling and will be on their shelves soon.
This was my first time to try moonshine, and if you’re wondering what Straight Up tastes like, listen to the old Roger Miller song, “Chug-a-Lug.” I’ll just say it’s warm all the way down. Shiela makes a wide assortment of non-alcoholic flavors to mix with their Straight Up moonshine to make it go down a little more smoothly. Beware, though. The mixed version is still 80 proof and is tricky because the moonshine flavor is well hidden.
If you are 21 or over and roaming through the middle of southern Tennessee, you might want to add this family-run business to your itinerary. I loved just visiting and hearing the family’s story—past and present.
Moonshine Myths & Facts
Moonshine will make you go blind. This is true only if you do it wrong! The distilling process produces a few different levels of product. One is good for drinking, the others are not. If you drink the level that is used for hand sanitizer, things could get very bad indeed. Stick to what’s bottled for consumption (in moderation!), and you don’t have to worry about going blind.
I can legally make moonshine in my backyard for personal use. Wrong. I don’t know what the laws are in Texas, but in Tennessee, it is illegal to make moonshine without the proper licensing. If you are into DIY, better stick to wine or beer.
Bootlegging is the same as making moonshine. The term bootlegging is commonly associated with moonshine, but they are not the same thing. Bootlegging is illegal because it means the moonshine is being sold without a license and, most important to the government, without paying liquor tax.