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Gregg Brooks introduces habanero peppers to moonshine and 300 pounds of local honey. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo.)
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Organic habaneros piled on the cutting board. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo.)
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Brooks punctures each pepper for better infusion. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo.)
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The peppers steep from 12 to 72 hours. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo.)
In a Manchester warehouse, Belle Isle Craft Spirits’ production director slices into habaneros so perfect you’d almost think they’re food props. The organic peppers pile up on the cutting board to the sounds of soft classical music playing overhead. The peppers then get scooped into two plastic tubs until all 30 pounds of them are ready to infuse 300 pounds of honey from a Waynesboro man named Bubba and more than 1,000 liters of filtered water mixed with organic, triple-distilled neutral corn rocket fuel, or white whiskey. In a few days’ time, this will become one of Richmond’s most popular local spirits: Honey Habanero Premium Moonshine. “It’s the pickling effect,” Gregg Brooks says. “The alcohol will force a lot of the oil out by opening [the peppers] up, so as the spirit goes inside, it picks up a lot of oils as it comes back out.” He delicately pours the habaneros into a gleaming 2,000-liter steel tank. A string section soars.
It’s a far cry from the dead-of-night stills in America’s backwoods where moonshiners have infamously, illegally and often dangerously been producing batches of high-proof alcohol for hundreds of years, and this product — a lithe-necked 750-milliliter bottle of unaged whiskey adorned with a modern label — is a far cry from the cartoonish “XXX” clay jugs of yore. But that’s the point here. “We just want to educate people that this is not scary,” Brooks says.
“It’s America’s original clear spirit,” managing partner Vince Riggi jumps in. “Think of it as that.”
To some, legally produced moonshine isn’t “moonshine” at all; to earn the nomenclature it must be made out from under the watchful eye of the government and its tax system, a renegade spirit made in the spirit of the Appalachian and Southeastern shiners who popularized it. But co founders Riggi, Alex Wotring and Brian Marks beg to differ — their product is moonshine through and through, but legal, elevated and reimagined for tastemakers looking for something unique. And that something happens to come in three corn-based, triple-distilled varieties: the company’s original 80-proof Premium Moonshine; Ruby Red Grapefruit Premium Moonshine, another infusion; and, of course, the Honey Habanero, whose 30 pounds of peppers will usually mingle in the tank with that honey and white lightning anywhere from 12 to 72 hours, depending on a number of factors including temperature. “We’ve had peppers that sat for almost seven days,” Brooks says. “When you talk about the weather, it’s a lot easier pouring honey now than when it was 41 degrees in January.”
The new HVAC system should help regulate the process, as should the new 4,000-liter tanks currently on the way — a relief, considering the increase in demand. There are roughly 1,110 liters of finished product in each 2,000-liter tank, netting around 2,100 bottles. Four hundred and eighty bottles fill a palette, and the team sends at least one palette of its moonshine to Virginia ABC stores every two weeks. It’s sold in 50 Richmond-area restaurants and bars, and another 100 throughout the state, and it’s also distributed in Maryland, Delaware, South Carolina, West Virginia, Florida and Washington, D.C. When the team began bottling Honey Habanero in early 2015, it produced one batch every six weeks, then monthly, now seemingly whenever there’s free tank space. Last year the company made nearly 14,000 bottles, total. This year it’s projected to hit 70,000.
“January, February and March are the three traditional worst booze months of the year; they usually make up about 12 to 15 percent of your overall, but they were our three best months as a company, so if that’s any indication…” Riggi trails off and shrugs. On the table in front of him is a prototype of Belle Isle’s newest infusion. It isn’t ready for announcement just yet, but I’ll wager this flavor is going to be big. So big, even purists might have to concede there’s a bright, legal future for moonshine ahead.