Life has thrown this moonshiner a few curveballs. This month, she rolls out WNC’s first legal white lightnin’.
by Melanie McGee Bianchi . portrait by Shawn Ehlers
Want her recipe for moonshine? Too bad. She’ll never tell. Troy Ball didn’t spend years winning the trust of close-lipped mountain natives for nothing. Their secret moonshine stills (and even more secret recipes) are a fierce source of hereditary pride around Western North Carolina. For a Texas real estate developer who’s relatively new to the area, acquiring such secrets has taken some extra effort.
But now that she has the recipes, look out. Later this month, Ball will collaborate with Highland Brewing Company founder Oscar Wong to offer Western North Carolina’s first legal white whiskey, aka moonshine, under the name Troy & Sons.
That story all hangs together better when you get to know Troy Ball, who has strong clannish ties herself. With her husband Charlie, Ball cares for three sons, Marshall, Coulton and Luke. The eldest two are nonverbal and confined to wheelchairs due to autism and other rare, undiagnosed disorders. Discovered in childhood to be a precocious reader, Marshall by age 13 was a celebrated spiritual poet. Now 24 and called a “quality thinker” by his mother, he has appeared on CNN and twice on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He’s been profiled in Time and People magazines and is the author of two books, Kiss of God (translated into five languages) and A Good Kiss.
Troy helped her son write and publish both books while she held down a busy real estate career in Austin. Turns out Ball, who’s also a champion equestrian, has always taken on ambitious projects. “Even prior to having my children, I was a very focused person. I was managing horse shows at age 16,” she says. Just five years back, the 51-year-old took home a team gold medal from the Canadian National Championship 100-mile endurance race.
Still, having two disabled sons adds a layer of complexity to life that’s hard to describe. “They are both medically fragile and there have been very close calls,” Ball says, explaining that Coulton, who’s now 22, spent six weeks of last year in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in a coma. In 2004, while the Balls were living in Austin, Charlie and Troy helped found a nonprofit there called Thoughtful House (renamed this year after a donor, Betty Wold Johnson), dedicated to helping children with developmental disorders. “All of a sudden, my focus was to [search for a] cure while trying to keep them alive,” she says.
Those kinds of challenges day in and day out for 20 years can make a person rather persistent. It’s a trait that served Ball well when she and her husband moved to Asheville in 2004 and rolled out Whisper Mountain, a high-end green housing development 17 miles north of Asheville. They started selling lots, which range in price from $90,000 to the high $300,000s, in 2007—just a year before WNC’s real estate market (and markets around the country) took a plunge. Now, they’ve sold seven homes and 31 lots in the 450-acre gated community. But sales have been slower than the Ball family anticipated. One of their venture’s early successes was a partnership with Southern Living magazine on the 2008 Idea House. The farmhouse-style three-bedroom home has green features like solar panels and a rain water catchment system and is still for sale at $849,000.
Ball has also been persistent about creating her distillery, Troy & Sons, which will produce top-shelf corn liquor. By later this month, she intends to sell the alcohol in area bars, restaurants and stores, and in a tasting room adjacent to Highland Brewing.
Arguably the most illustrative emblem of Southern-mountain independence, moonshine acquired its devious sheen from its illegality. And slicing through all the red tape to open an above-board distillery was stickier than dodging any revenuer. “Getting a federal permit to open a legal distillery takes a lot of time, energy, perseverance, and money,” Ball told VERVE in early April. In the state most historically famous for chasing down moonshine-makers, it’s still much harder to create an alcohol distillery than it is to start up a brewery or a vineyard, Ball says. Recent documentary films and photo exhibits—particularly after the nationally-publicized death of East Tennessee moonshiner Popcorn Sutton in 2009—have played up the beverage’s early connection to NASCAR and North Carolina. The story goes that Depression-era bootleggers rigged up car engines to better navigate mountain terrain while outrunning the law.
When Ball combed the coves herself a few years back, developing relationships with WNC farmers in search of authentic corn-liquor recipes, she didn’t stop until she discovered the McEntire family in McDowell county, purveyors of Crooked Creek corn. Their corn is a rare breed that’s been trademarked for its particular taste and purity. Ball partnered up with the McEntires to make what she says is an especially smooth liquor with hints of vanilla. In late May, she started running batches of a fermented mash through a giant 2,000-liter copper still, manufactured in Germany and shipped in to Asheville.
At some point, she plans to roll out a product called Lovin’ moonshine, playing off the Appalachian saying that there are different types of ‘shine—the “lovin’ kind,” the “fightin’ kind,” and the “cryin’ kind” (among others). Ball envisions cocktails made from the Lovin’ kind. Perhaps she’ll convince Asheville’s crowd of craft-beer aficionados to order up a Troy & Sons Lovin’ martini.
“It’s for those who don’t want whiskey made from a massive plant, who appreciate handmade quality,” Ball says, noting that Crooked Creek corn is not genetically modified. On its website, the Ball family gives bits of moonshining history and offers up videos of the McEntires and others telling tall tales about one-legged moonshiners of the past. “This is a product and a tradition that were truly born of this area,” she says.
Troy & Sons will start distillery and tasting room tours at the end of June, and the bottled product will be available at ABC stores. For more info, check out www.troyandsons.com or call 828-575-2000.