- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - Here’s the thing about moonshine.

Right from the start, there are certain parts of it you can’t control, says Joe Fenten, founder and president of Dark Corner Distillery in downtown Greenville.

“No batch is identical,” he says. “It’s just not possible because the second the humidity changes or a bird’s nest falls into a cornfield, you’ve changed the dynamic of the corn.”

That’s part of the mystique of moonshine, a powerful clear whiskey known colloquially as white lightning, hooch or just plain shine.

On a recent overcast day, Fenten, 30, is sitting outside a coffee shop off Woodruff Road. He is impeccably dressed, clean shaven, hair slicked back and parted to the side.

He looks more like an ad man than a moonshiner, but then again, the whiskey that put Dark Corner Distillery on the map is a breed apart from what’s being made in the Carolina back country.

The shine made at the micro-distillery at 241 N. Main St. has earned more accolades than can be listed, including numerous gold medals and best in show this year at the American Craft Distilling Association and best white whiskey at the International Whiskey Competition.

“It was a remarkable moment for us,” Fenten says, recalling what it felt like to walk up on the stage.

Just four years ago, he set out to make the world’s best moonshine.

Son of the Dark Corner

Fenten grew up next to a peach farm at the bottom of Hogback Mountain in Landrum. It’s the sort of place where there are more dusty gravel roads than paved ones, a place where myth and legend meet and call themselves the Dark Corner.

A nearby resident came from a known moonshining family - authorities would later raid the property, seizing some 1,500 gallons of moonshine and $150,000 in cash in 2011.

Fenten says his family didn’t touch the stuff. His father and three brothers were electricians. While Fenten was in high school, his father opened a car detail shop in Columbus, North Carolina, a little hole in the wall that, in true small-town fashion, became the after-school hangout spot.

“My dad was the guy who would show up at the basketball games, and everybody would be like, ‘Oh, there’s Wild Bill or there’s Dirty Bill -he had nicknames like that.’”

Looking back, Fenten says high school was the highlight of his early career.

He was the captain of three sports teams, the school disc jockey and Polk County High’s student body president. He was dating the girl he met in 10th grade and would later marry, and he was voted best all around for yearbook superlative.

College was harder.

Fenten, who was good at math and science, won a small scholarship to Clemson University, where he decided to major in electrical engineering.

The plan was to graduate, make some good money and one day start a family electrician business.

It took 5½ years to get his degree while working two jobs, but it didn’t take long for Fenten to realize that working in a tiny cubicle at a large company wasn’t for him.

“I got this itch that I had back in high school to be a leader, to build something,” he says.

Wedding shine

The eye-opening moment happened in Chicago while Fenten was working at a plant for a large spirits producer.

By then, he was employed as a contract engineer, a job that meant hefty paychecks but two to six months on the road at a time.

He was hired to increase the plant’s bottling line speed to 250 bottles per minute. These were premium, high-end brands Fenten used to serve as a bartender, yet they were being produced on an assembly line that looked like it could be making BMWs.

“One day as I was watching 250 bottles per minute go past my eyes I realized, ‘Holy cow, these guys are making a killing on this stuff.’”

Fenten went back to his hotel that night and quickly sketched out a business plan. He would open South Carolina’s first legal whiskey distillery in downtown Greenville and make great-tasting moonshine.

His wife, Roxy Fenten, says she figured it was another one of “Joe’s crazy ideas.”

“But once I got all the information, I loved it,” she says. “I loved the whole idea of doing something new for the state and branching out on our own, because we had always talked about starting some kind of business.”

Fenten’s idea started taking shape in 2010, a year after South Carolina began taxing small distilleries, which in turn allowed entrepreneurs to make legal liquor.

They just needed a recipe.

Here’s the second thing about moonshine, Fenten says with a grin.

If you have a conversation with somebody anywhere in the Southeast and mention moonshine, chances are that person will know someone who either makes it or can get it.

So Fenten visited places he knew were prominent for moonshine and found out how to get his hands on the local brew.

“If you hang out with a group of guys - good ole country boys if you will - and you mention moonshine, that’s the best way to find out. Before you know it, you’re at somebody’s house in a rundown shed behind their home, and they’ve got jars and jugs of moonshine.”

The recipe used at Dark Corner Distillery today is a combination of the best batches he found, as well as know-how from old-timers, men in their 80s and 90s whose grandfathers did it.

The grandfathers would call it wedding shine.

Making good, palatable corn whiskey is a painstaking process. Each batch is equal to about 250 to 260 bottles and takes about two weeks to make.

Everything is done by hand, says Roxy, the distillery’s manager. “Nothing is automated. We do it as old fashioned and as traditional as possible.”

Even the corn is locally sourced from Hurricane Creek Farms in Pickens.

The hardest thing now is deciding how fast to grow.

“We didn’t vet the business idea out,” Fenten says.

They were ill-prepared when the distillery opened in September of 2011. They didn’t have the resources, the capital, or the employees. Fenten kept his day job as an electrical engineer. His wife left her job as production manager at Strosser’s Bakery.

“I could go on and on and on,” he says.

After being in business for four years, Fenten still has to work as a full-time engineer. But he’s the sort of entrepreneur who likes a challenge.

He leaves for his day job at 6 a.m. and doesn’t get home until after dark. On weekends, he’s at the distillery.

Still, Fenten has managed to become the visionary behind something the old-timers didn’t think was possible - legit high-end moonshine.

___

Information from: The Greenville News, https://www.greenvillenews.com


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