The still in the hills

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OH6The old stone still that started it all 

There may not be gold in them hills, but at Ozark Hills Moonshine, there sure is history.

Carol Romano and her husband, Vito, weren’t expecting to find history or whiskey when they bought a few hundred acres in the Christian County countryside back in 1998. They simply saw the land as a nice place to retire from their former life in Las Vegas.

A bit of brush hogging, however, altered their plans of rest and relaxation. “There’s a holler, as they call it around here, (and) it was so grown up that we couldn’t even get through with our four wheeler,” says Carol. But buried treasure was lurking beneath the overgrown grass. “(My husband) cleared it off and he found this old, stone still.”

The still, as it turned out, dated from the end of the Civil War. The find piqued the couple’s interest: They began to learn the art of distilling alcohol as a hobby. It wasn’t long, however, before that interest grew into Ozark Hills Moonshine, which officially began operation in 2013.

Getting started

Carol Romano, also known as Grandma Moonshine, began the business in 2013

Ozark Hills hails itself as being “the first legal moonshiners in Christian County,” but it took a bit of effort — despite an absence of revenuers — to earn that designation.

“The government is very picky on how far you are from a church,” says Carol, who notes that liquor businesses have to at least be 500 feet or more away from such institutions — and must note their exact distance when registering as a distilled spirits plan. “We even had trouble putting a sign up in Chadwick because of the church.”

Another issue came about after the company had opened. “Eight miles from Chadwick, private property, 340 feet from road,” says Carol, citing details about the distillery’s location. “We didn’t think about we have to be (zoned) commercial.” But indeed they did. That fact that was pointed out after an article in the local newspaper highlighted the new business — and a Planning and Zoning commissioner read about it. “We had to go in to Planning and Zoning, a little late, but they accepted it,” says Carol.

Gary Williams, Sr. stands next to barrels of mash before it’s made into moonshine

The moonshine man  

After getting through the bureaucratic red tape, another issue the couple faced was production. That aspect was solved by the entrance of Gary Williams, Sr., a native of nearby Douglas County, who came on board as the company’s official distiller.

Much to his parents’ chagrin, Gary got into whiskey making while in high school after a friend’s father taught him the trade. “My parents (are) very religious,” says Gary. “When I mention something or other (about the distillery), (my mom) just won’t talk to me.”

When Gary was a kid, stills weren’t uncommon. (That’s not to say they’re uncommon today. But when asked about their prevalence, few people seem to know much of anything…) “Most teenagers, back in the day, that’s what they did,” says Babbi Coffer, executive assistant and salesperson for the distillery. “They didn’t go to the liquor store, they went to grandpa’s still, or uncle so-and-so had a still and they’d sneak out…”

It was that relationship that gave Gary the “recipe” he uses at Ozark Hills — making him understandably secretive of it. When asked about the ingredients, he says “Ah, I usually add corn.” When pressed for more, he also mentions “Yeast, ‘cause thats what make it ferment.” But unless you count another obvious ingredient — sugar — which is piled high in the back room, that’s all you’ll get.

But he’s not shy about the still. The company doesn’t use the old stone one any longer, as health regulations won’t allow it. Instead, the company houses their official still adjacent to the storeroom. Gary designed it himself: He fashioned it after the stills of yesteryear, which were often comprised of wooden barrels. “They couldn’t use anything very expensive because the revenuers would destroy it,” Gary notes of the stills from days gone by.

Stay still and wait 

Instead of wood, a series of galvanized metal containers comprises today’s still. But a few steps must occur before they see any mash. After those secret ingredients are combined, the mixture sits in plastic barrels for around five days. “You can usually smell it in here,” says Carol. “It smells like baking bread.”

After the waiting period is over, the mixture is then put into the first of the metal containers, which alternatively heat and cool the liquid into moonshine. Usually the distillery puts out between eight and 12 gallons a day, but that amount depends on things like, you know, the weather. “Every day is completely different on how it does it,” says Gary, noting that things like humidity, barometric pressure and temperature all play a role.

The resulting moonshine is turned into a variety of products. Part of it is bottled and sold under the company’s “White Lightening” umbrella. According to Carol, its name is pretty self-explanatory. “When you take a swig, you kind of feel like you got hit by lightening,” she says with a chuckle.

When you take a swig, you kind of feel like you got hit by lightening,” Carol says with a chuckle.

Another portion of the moonshine is put in barrels and aged for about six months to create whiskey. Beyond that, the alcohol serves as the basis for the distillery’s line of flavored moonshine, which include flavors like Maraschino Twist, Forbidden Apple and cinnamon. Other varieties, such as lemonade, iced tea, peach and orange, are in the works.

For sale: moonshine and more

OH8

Ozark Hills Moonshine is available at several local stops, including Harter House

Ozark Hill’s products are available at the distillery, which is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays. However, its products are also sold at Harter House, Macadoodles, Heather Hills in Ozark and several stores in Branson. “We’re gettin’ there,” says Carol of the business’s growth.

Ozark Hills Moonshine, located beautifully in the middle of nowhere
Ozark Hills Moonshine, located beautifully in the middle of nowhere

Visitors, however, can purchase more than just alcohol at the distillery. You know that still — the one that Gary designed himself? Well, those babies are for sale, too. A purchase of the patent-pending product includes free training, so it’s an option for even the novice distiller.

Interested in learning more (or trying a taste)? Carol — or Grandma Moonshine, as she’s known — will be glad to visit and offer you a sample. According to Babbi, those tastings are a way to attract new customers — especially those who have convinced themselves they don’t like moonshine. “Then they try ours and they really change their mind,” she says.

Want to try it?

Ozark Hills Moonshine, LLC (625 Cedar Creek Rd., Chadwick; 417-634-4930) is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can connect with them through their website or on Facebook.