For most people, the word “moonshine” conjures cartoonish images of shotgun-toting hill people coaxing illicit potions, strong enough to strip paint, from smelly backwoods stills while keeping a sharp eye out for the “revenuers.”
Sitting down with Indian Lake resident Jerrod Leon Henry, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the reality is a lot different. It’s a sophisticated art form, in fact, legal or not. Henry knows because he’s an expert. His product tastes good, is useless for stripping paint and has the added benefit of being legal — or at least it will be when his distillery, bar and North Carolina-style barbecue joint opens its doors on S.H. 100 just east of Los Fresnos, probably around mid-May.
Originally from the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Henry already has his federal license for the company, Rio Grande Distillery, and is in the process of getting permission from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. It will be the first distillery in the Rio Grande Valley, and the 48th or 49th in the state since Texas legalized distilling only seven years ago, he said.
“My federal permit was granted to me on Tuesday,” Henry said. “I did my initial filing with TABC on Wednesday. Over at my building I have my notification posted and I should be fully legal probably within 30 to 60 days.”
The small distillery, a stone’s throw from Bobz World, will offer flavored moonshines and liqueurs such as peach, blueberry lemonade, strawberry, horchata, jamaica and melon, all under Henry’s Magic Valley Moonshine brand, he said.
“The flavors that we do for aguas frescas I’m incorporating into moonshine for our Valley people,” Henry said. “I don’t want to just appeal to the people on their way to the Island. I want to appeal to people here.”
Also on the menu will be his mescal, a spirit made from certain species of agave and which leads to Henry’s other, equally interesting story. As a maker and seller of parts for stills and a frequent dispenser of advice on Facebook distilling groups, his name has gotten around. One day Henry received a message from the casting company for the Discovery Channel’s hit show “Moonshiners” asking him if he’d be up for an interview to possibly appear on the show.
In November he found out he’d been selected among 12 others to take part in four “Master Distiller” competitions, each for a different spirit. Competing in mescal, Henry distilled mescal de pechuga, which involves a variety of fruits, grains and nuts being added to the kettle while it cooks, plus a raw turkey breast — pechuga in Spanish — being hung inside the still head during cooking.
“You would think adding sugars into a distillate while you’re distilling would make the distillate sweet,” Henry said. “It doesn’t. It has the opposite effect. It makes it bitter. But the protein infusion that comes from the raw turkey levels out the bitter and brings back nose (aroma) and body to the spirit. Some people actually use rabbit or even iguana. It’s a particular thing to Mexico.”
The mescal episode, which airs on the Discovery Channel at 9 p.m. on March 17, was shot over a week in December at Sugarland Distilling Company in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The winner of each competition gets a limited run of their product through Sugarland and a percentage of the sales, Henry said.
“I imagine they’ll have my ugly mug or a turkey or something like that on it,” he said. “Mostly what do you get? Prestige.”
Under the terms of his appearance on the show, Henry isn’t at liberty to reveal the winner.
“I can’t tell you if I won,” he said. “I can say it went very well for me.”
When Henry returned home from Gatlinburg, his neighbors Larry and Kathy Salle, who he describes as “real nice people from Kansas,” had a proposition for him, which brings us back to where we started.
“They asked me if I wanted to open a distillery,” Henry said. “We talked about it and we made an agreement and that’s what we’re working on now. … They are my partners. They helped me finance this to start the distillery, because I probably couldn’t have done it on my own.”
Besides mescal and moonshine, which is unaged whiskey, Grande Distillery will offer a rum line as well as an aged, oaked whiskey, he said.
“That’s going to be a couple of months after opening probably, to have the real whiskey available in a larger amount,” Henry said. “We’ll have some probably on opening. My license allows me to operate a bar so long as I’m selling my products. So I can make mixed drinks out of moonshine. We’ll be having margaritas.”
Hearing him talk about what goes into it, how exact the distiller has to be and all the variables of body, flavor and nose, it’s clear that quality “shine” is no easy thing to make. Henry’s passion for it — ask any moonshiner and they’ll tell you it’s in their blood — is equally clear.
“I would certainly call it a craft,” he said. “I hear people say that it’s a hobby. We’ll, collecting stamps is a hobby. Anybody can make (bad) liquor. It takes a different kind of guy to make good liquor.”