PEOPLE & CULTURE:
By Layne Hendrickson, Features Editor
HARDIN - “It was leap of faith really,” Spencer Balentine said as he reflected on the massive endeavor he first undertook two and-a-half years ago.
“I had to have everything completed before I could even seek state and federal approval,” he said.
“That’s a huge gamble, but it has been a labor of love and I knew it would work out.” Spencer is no stranger to enterprise.
His father founded the Town and Country Motorsports Yamaha dealership in Murray which Spencer later took over and continued to grow successfully for decades. “At one time we had over 1,000 ATV’s in stock… Everything I do I start small and see where I can take it.”
“I had to build a building…, find food grade copper, solder, make the still itself and find food grade barrels for the mash,” he said. “The application alone was 180 pages and it referred to laws that I had to look up and decipher. I had to submit precise architectural drawings which were kicked back twice because they did not include the GPS coordinates of the distilling room- I later found out. It was just unbelievable what they put you through.
He continued, “I had to pay for an FBI background check, supply a year’s worth of financial records. They had to know where every nickel came from. I had an hour and a half phone interview with the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. They acted like I wanted to be the president or something, but they want to make sure that you are squeaky clean.”
Spencer had to run an ad in the local paper announcing his plans and requesting public input. “The state told me they only received one complaint, but they had judged that to be insignificant,” Spencer said.
“I had both Federal and State inspectors come down in big black cars with big antennas, they went over every detail…right down to the type and size bolts on the doors. I had to give the still a serial number and register it with the Food and Drug Administration, as well.
“When I asked about approval from the County, Spencer smiled and said “The state told me that I had to have a form filled out and signed by the County Liquor Administrator… Well they laughed when I told them we didn’t really have one because we were a dry county… Turned out that it was Mike Miller, but when I asked Mike about it he said he didn’t even know that he had that job!
“It ended up being more of a character reference than anything else, which was given. All in all, I had to have 10 references” Spencer lamented. “Once I finally got their approval, this became a federally bonded room” he warns “If anyone breaks in it is automatically a felony Federal offence.” Needless to say the security at Silver Trail Distillery is extremely tight and high tech.
“All I’m waiting on now is the final approval from the Treasury Department of the “LBL Most Wanted Moonshine” label which I should get any day now,” he said excitedly. “I hope to have it on the liquor store shelves in January of 2012.
“I will only have one customer by law and that will be a single distributor out of Miami, Fla. I went to all the area liquor stores and asked them which distributor pestered them the most and they all gave me the same answer so that’s the one I will use,” he said.
“I can’t sell to anybody else under any circumstances… I’ve put too much into this to lose it all bootlegging,” he said. “I have to make monthly reports to the Federal Treasury Dept. and the state Alcohol Control Board. They’ll be keeping a good eye on me.”
When I asked what his hopes are for the future, Spencer replied “Well, being a Kentucky distillery has a certain prestige to folks around the world and making shine the old fashioned way is very interesting to people, so at some point I would like to get an entertainment license and start giving tours…make it a destination and museum too. No taste tests though because it’s a dry county.
“I’m already in the Kentucky Proud Program and that will be very good marketing and the distributor will be doing a lot of internet promotion and taste tests in the bars. Eventually I would like to get big enough to get a young guy in here and teach him how to do it and I could just be on the road marketing and making contacts, but that’s a long way off yet,” he stated.
“I’m building a website and will be doing YouTube segments. I’ve even been contacted by the History Channel about a six-part series called “Small Batch Operators” so that’s looking like it will happen…. Lots of things to look forward to.”