Two brothers have brought their family's heritage of making moonshine to Texas — only, this time, it's completely legal.
This weekend, Tom and Jason Hicks will celebrate the grand opening of Moonshine Ridge Distillery on the courthouse square in Johnson City. The new location allows them to expand production of the spirits they make, which includes a tweaked version of their grandfather's original moonshine recipe.
In addition to selling products like that Archer's Blend Kentucky Clear in stores, Moonshine Ridge has a tasting room that the brothers hope will become a regular hangout for residents of Johnson City. So far, reception to their unaged whiskeys and a new potato vodka — all of which you can order in cocktails — has been strong. But they also recognize the word 'moonshine' comes with a bit of a negative connotation.
"It's generally been well-received, but you have to educate people on moonshine because of the stigma attached to the idea of moonshine," Tom Hicks said. "People think it’s backwoods or made in your bathtub and will make you go blind. For us, we use the best ingredients we can. We use Texas corn (grown) within a 200-miles radius of San Antonio. A little bit of nationally bought wheat and barley. And then, as a sweetener, Texas wildflower honey."
He's referring to Archer's Blend, named after the grandfather who started it all. Although he died "before we even knew him," the making of moonshine remained part of their family, Tom said. In fact, it's even how their mom and dad met. Both sides of the family had settled in the unincorporated community of Gunlock, Kentucky, in the eastern part of the state.
Tom remembers seeing a still for the first time on a mountain behind his grandparents' house when he was 7 or 8 years old. He made bootleg runs with his uncle when he was 10 or 12. Moonshine has been an ongoing fixture in his life, even when he didn't drink it.
"It was nothing when we would go down (to visit family) as kids," he said. "A mason jar would be sitting on the porch, you know, and then the uncles would always disappear into the mountains. It was just a natural thing."
Though Tom and Jason are in Texas now, with no plans to leave, they realized a few years ago they could revive that Kentucky tradition here. The brothers were able to secure their grandfather's corn mash recipe, replacing the sugar with honey and sourcing the corn from Texas farmers. A key to the moonshine's flavor? Moonshine Ridge continues to make it with baker's yeast, giving it a bready finish.
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But Archer's Blend isn't all that Tom, the head distiller, makes with two 50-gallon stills. (Jason still has a day job.) In addition to the main moonshine, there are Kat Daddy's Hill Fire Cinnamon — whiskey infused with cinnamon sticks — and Mr. Shine's Burnt Oak — whiskey infused with charred whiskey barrel chips. Both use the 105-proof Archer's Blend as their base. Moonshine Ridge also offers the Gunlock Original Texas German Potato Vodka.
The brothers had originally opened the distillery in a private industrial park in San Marcos. The restricted hours of the park made it difficult to keep a regular tasting room, and the small size of the facility meant they outgrew it in the first six months, Jason said. Moonshine Ridge needed a new location, which proved harder to find than expected. After potentials fell through in Lockhart and Dripping Springs, the prime spot at Johnson City popped up.
Despite the stress of finding that perfect place, both Hicks feel their search worked out in the end. Moonshine Ridge is in a part of the small town visited often by both residents and tourists alike, and it's right next door to popular brewpub Pecan Street Brewing.
"To be on the square of Johnson City, with all the foot traffic, it's like things happened for a reason," Jason said. "The move from San Marcos to here was kind of scary, but being stuck in a private industrial park for three years and being at the mercy of Texas liquor laws and regulations hindered our business quite a bit."
The tasting room of wood and metal stays open later than most businesses on weekends, providing Johnson City locals with a late-night hangout. In addition to having cocktails on offer, they can expect live music, table games and sports games on TV. Bottles to go of each of the moonshines and the potato vodka are also available to take home at prices ranging from $20 (the vodka) to $42 (a limited rye).
Celebrate the grand opening starting at noon on Saturday. There will be live music, yard games and a special release of the Gunlock Single Barrel Texas Rye, the most limited of Moonshine Ridge's boozy products.
Moonshine Ridge is located at 104 E. Pecan St., Johnson City. For more information, visit moonshineridgeinc.com.