Fans of the old movie “Thunder Road” will be right at home visiting Raymond Butler at Dalton Distillery in Dalton, Georgia. He and his family have been producing real Georgia moonshine for more than 100 years. Southern moonshiners are inventive. They don’t let the law stop them and they get creative about ingredients. Raymond has made liquor from many different things over the years. As he tells it, “Any kind of fruit, if it will ferment, I can make you drunk.”
Raymond spoke of all the different things he has used to make whiskey: red or black grapes, peaches, sweet potatoes, even tomatoes. He told a few tales about local folks that have contributed to his success.
He explained, “The mayor has a food company. When he has something that is overripe, he’ll holler, come get it. He’s a good customer too.”
Why Their Moonshine is So Unique and Special.
Currently, Raymond and his son Chuck produce moonshine called TazaRay made with sunflower seeds. Raymond proudly claims it is the only sunflower-based spirit on planet earth. It’s a bit sweet, but totally different — you gotta taste it to believe it. It’s sharp and clean tasting, but burns all the way down your throat.
The recipe has roots dating back over 100 years. Raymond melds the malted sunflower seeds and corn grain to produce a bit of bottled magic. It is gluten free for those with a gluten allergy. (Who says whiskey can’t be healthy?) Native Americans first cultivated the sunflower and the name is a salute to Native Americans. Taza means warrior or chief and Ray is for the sun.
Some of Dalton Distillery's products
I opted for the straight corn whiskey. It went down smooth, but the burn in the back of your throat told you it was a good solid whiskey. In answer to those who say ‘How can you make bourbon in Georgia? Bourbon is only made in Kentucky.” Here are the rules for bourbon as stated by the T.T.B. (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) “Whisky produced in the U.S. and not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
Barrels are a necessary part of producing bourbon.
Raymond welcomed us to browse around the distillery. It’s filled with both the modern distillery equipment and some of the old relics of the outlaw days. One table is filled with the drying sunflower and corn mixture. A fan blows across it to speed the drying. The wetting causes it to swell and sprout. Once it’s dry, they grind it up to make the mash. Raymond uses malted wheat instead of yeast as he feels it prevents that “next day headache.”
Additionally, Raymond is proud that nothing gets wasted. After the mash is used, a local hog farmer picks it up for feed. Another section of the floor space is occupied by the aging barrels of bourbon. A huge copper still has pride of place and a smaller one that Raymond explains was used by his father when Raymond was a child. That one was set up in the attic and guests never knew what was going on just over their heads.
Stills of different sizes at Dalton Distillery.
Although Raymond is very free with giving out general information, the exact recipe is a family secret. He grew up in east Tennessee and can’t remember a time he wasn’t helping his father make moonshine. And it’s a family tradition: his father had learned his craft from his father.
He told of moonshining in the “good ole days” when moonshining was hard work. They would set up a still six or seven miles out in the woods. Money was tight those days. Copper piping was expensive so they adapted existing materials. Another reason was that buying the copper piping would call attention to them. Six gallon cases sold for $30 back then. When the authorities found the still, they chopped it down in front of them and took them into Knoxville and booked them then turned them loose to get back home as best they could. There were some ‘shiners who cut the corners and used things like automobile batteries to hurry the fermenting. Raymond explained “The law would always cut them down but sometimes, but they gave me a break.”
Today, Dalton Distillery is a major attraction in Dalton located next to the old railroad depot that now houses the visitor’s bureau. They began the legal operation in June 2015. The distillery has a large event space where they offer events ranging from music and comedy to a distiller’s course. Distiller’s course lets people participate in the distilling process and reading equipment to judge the percentage of alcohol in your mash. Raymond presides over this course and is generous with his extensive knowledge.
Raymond explains some of the steps in distilling.
The whiskey here is reminiscent of when moonshiners claimed they made their whiskey for medicinal purposes. When you buy a fifth of his whiskey, you get a “prescription” that reads in part, “Recommended dosage one immediate shot for the night time fun-loving, crazy-dancing and singing so you can have a good time and then rest medicine.”
Like any medicine, it has a side effects warning. “Side effects are as follows but not limited to: sudden urges to sing and dance; may make you lean on walls, tables and people of the opposite sex; blurred vision and slurred speech; and may make people of the opposite sex appear more attractive than they really are,” signed by Raymond Butler, MD (Master Distiller) AKA Dr. Feel Good.
With people as well as whiskey sometimes you need to look a little deeper to find the real deal. Raymond may be a bit of an outlaw, but on an isolated spot on the distillery wall is a plaque from Harley Davidson Motorcycles thanking Raymond Butler for being a Vietnam Veteran who served his country from 1955 to 1957. Today, Raymond is proud to be able to pursue his craft legally.
His motto is, “Whiskey. It may not be the answer, but it will help you forget the question.”