PEOPLE & CULTURE:
By Layne Hendrickson, Features Editor
HARDIN - When I was young, my maternal grandfather handed my aunt a short length of rusty, old, hand-forged chain. Since she worked with metal while making her silver jewelry, he thought she should have it.
“My father forged this himself,” he said proudly “but truth be told, he mainly worked in copper…” he confessed with a smile and a knowing wink. We all knew exactly what this meant of course. Most folks around here would.
My family grew up with stories of uncle Rice who had a Model A Ford rigged up to run faster in reverse than it would in forward to help him give the revenuers the slip. I would venture to say that most of the old families of this area have similar stories whether they tell them or not. And like it or not, moonshine is a big part of our past here… and perhaps our future.
Plink…plink…plunk, drizzle, pour…gush. Did you hear it? ...The sound of the first fresh, legal whisky hitting the bottom of a gallon jug in Marshall County since it was last legally distilled here well over a hundred years ago.
Spencer Balentine is a man with a big story to tell. A story so big we have decided to tell it in a three part series this week… and that will be just be the beginning. With a love of his family’s history and dogged determination, Spencer has obtained the necessary licensing from the Federal and State Governments to distill corn whisky just as his ancestors did without the benefit of such legality.
Spencer’s great grandfather was said to have been a moonshiner, but his great uncle Alfred “Casey” Jones was known as the “King of the Moonshine Still Makers” in and around Golden Pond, KY. He was a guest of the Federal prison system twice as a result… The last such visit in 1950 brought an end to his illustrious career, but he is well remembered for it. One of his stills is on display at the LBL welcome center and another at The Hitchin’ Post in Aurora, KY. He bragged that he had made shine in every hollow in the Land Between the Rivers at one point or another. He is reported to have said “I even had a still set up right across the Cumberland from the Penitentiary” and that “That was a little too close to the law for comfort.”
Spencer has his dad’s rusty old 1934 International pick-up truck parked out in front of his new distillery. The truck comes with the story that Spencer’s dad and another man had used it to haul corn, sugar and yeast down by Sugar Bay on the hilly narrow roads. Seems as if the law got on their tail and they bailed out and let the truck roll back down the hill straight at the revenuers who were busy slinging gravel in reverse in a barely successful bid to avoid it. The truck went safely into a ditch…
Spencer’s dad and his cohort made it to the woods and the law dumped all the supplies out on the ground and took the keys. The truck was registered under a false name so the two moonshiners came back and hot-wired it later and put it right back into service. Tales such as this run as freely out of Spencer Balentine as the crystal clear whisky that runs out of his still.
Why even his great uncle Spencer’s still that is currently on display at the Hitchin’ Post has a story attached. It was confiscated by the feds who chopped the bottom out and gave it to the general store to display. It was promptly stolen back, repaired and put back into use…. Only to be confiscated yet again and this time filled with concrete and put behind the bars where it can still be seen today. Spencer has now carefully measured this very still and used it as the model for his own, but he doubled its dimensions to facilitate the production of commercial quantities. This would make old “Casey” Jones very proud no doubt.
Spencer relates that one of his earliest memories is the clunking of the glass ring jugs concealed beneath butcher paper in the back of his dad’s hauling car. After the short ride home from Spencer’s grandmother’s “Five Oaks General Store,” his dad dropped him and his mom off, and then left on a run to Clarksville. Spencer believes that around 1961 his dad made his last attempted run which he thinks ended with his dad’s ’54 Chevy and 200 gallons of 100 proof slowly bubbling down beneath the dark, moonlit waters of the Cumberland… his dad clinging tenaciously up under the huge iron bridge as the feds walked back and forth overhead scratching their heads at his seeming disappearance.
His dad finally made it home that night… scratched, battered and bruised. He then called it quits and from that night on… moonshine was a taboo topic in their home. Cars usually stay sunk, but age old family traditions tend to pop back to the surface unexpectedly. And now there’s Spencer Balentine. During a tour of the beautiful and historic Maker’s Mark Distillery (also in a dry county) Spencer had an epiphany…. to revive his family’s tradition, but on the right side of the law this go round. Thus began Spencer Balentine’s arduous labor of love building Silver Trail Distillery and the production of “LBL Most Wanted Moonshine.” Be sure and look for part 2 of this 3 part series later this week. Now I have to convince my wife that coming home smelling like a distillery really is part of my job sometimes… Wish me luck.