Chris Prillaman is the fiddle-playing mountain man distilling genuine Virginia moonshine the old fashioned way
“Making liquor was a way of life around home,” says Chris Prillaman, founder and head distiller at Twin Creeks Distillery.
Growing up just under the bluffs of The Blue Ridge Mountains, Chris was immersed in the area’s rich bootlegging history, and Franklin County moonshine, from a very early age.
It wasn’t uncommon for him to discover long-abandoned, makeshift pot stills when trekking through the woods that surrounded his family’s home.
After his father died when Chris was just 14, the young man spent countless hours mingling amongst the local Blue Ridge Mountain folks, soaking up local history and bygone traditions.
He became a walking encyclopedia on all things Southern Virginia, Even picking up unlikely skills like learning to play the fiddle and claw hammer banjo.
But there was something about distilling Virginia moonshine that seemed to always beckon Chris back.
Maybe that’s because moonshining runs in his blood.
Twin Creeks Distillery and the Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935
Rocky Mount, Virginia, home of Twin Creeks Distillery, is set in the heart of Franklin County, an area so indelibly linked to Prohibition-era bootlegging and Virginia moonshine, that it’s said 99 out of every 100 residents living there were believed to have played some part in the moonshine “industry” throughout the 1920s.
Chris’ grandfather, James Walter “Peg” Thatcher was one such gentleman.
By the 1930’s, the illegal distillation of liquor was running so rampant in Franklin County that it finally caught the attention of the Federal government.
It was estimated that Franklin County moonshine bootlegging operations had deprived the government of nearly $5.5 million in excise whiskey taxes.
Someone needed to be held accountable.
Twenty-three defendants in total were taken to a trial that, at 10 weeks long, would become the second lengthiest in Virginia history.
By its end, the trial that came to be known as “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy” of 1935 saw a total of 20 men convicted for their involvement in the shine trade, and each one was sent to federal prison.
“Peg” Thatcher was one of them.
When his time was served, “Peg” returned to the woods of Franklin County. But not to the business of bootlegging.
Instead, he perfected playing the old-time fiddle. And got so good at it, that he was recorded for posterity by the Library of Congress.
The famous fiddle that the Twin Creeks Distillery logo was designed around.
“Peg” eventually passed his famous fiddle on down to his daughter Irene. She in turn gave it to Chris. It’s the one he plays to this day.
“This is the reason for the fiddle within the logo,” Chris explains.
Timeless Virginia moonshine and more from the Blue Ridge Mountains
Just like bootleggers from the Blue Ridge Mountains used to do in the hills and holler of Southwest Virginia, Chris and his team at Twin Creeks Distillery pride themselves on producing craft spirits by using age-old distilling methods and locally sourced ingredients grown in their very own community.
His ancestors would be proud.
Steam is used to distill Twin Creeks’ 1st Sugar Moonshine, leaving it with a note-perfect finish that’s super clean and perfectly smooth.
After making a first run of pure rye whiskey, Twin Creeks Distillery sugars back the spent mash for a second. So you’re left with plenty of sweetness but very little bite. It’s great in fruited cocktails.
Heaps of local rye and a little bit of corn come together and distill down into Twin Creeks Distillery’s unaged Sweet Mash Rye.
This award-winning whiskey delivers grainy, fragrant aromas and a savory, coarse, spicy taste. You’ll love it in Whiskey Sours and Manhattans.
Virginia moonshine and other craft spirits from Twin Creeks Distillery.
100 proof Twin Creeks Distillery Copper Corn is as authentic as it gets.
You’ll experience grassy hints and refined white-corn flavors from this full-bodied white whiskey distilled in a traditional, copper submarine type still.
Hand-picked, locally-grown apples are ground, mashed and then copper-still distilled in small batches to produce Twin Creeks Distillery Apple Brandy, a fall favorite that can, and should, be enjoyed year round.
Ultra crisp, mildly tart and teeming with apple goodness.
The tradition Blue Ridge Mountains distilling
Chris inherited more than a fiddle from grandpa “Peg”.
He learned the value of making Virginia moonshine and other craft spirits in a time-honored way.
“The equipment used at the production site is traditional to the mountains of the Blue Ridge,” says Chris.
Most of what’s used at Twin Creeks Distillery was handmade by Chris and a group of his friends.
It’s all about ingenuity. For instance, Chris converted an old milk tank into a working still. And Chris takes pride in this kind of resourcefulness.
“We do not use commercialized column stills,” he tells us. “We build or use traditional style pot stills true to the hills.”
Method and ingredients are just as important to Chris.
Old-time Franklin County moonshine traditions are alive and well at Twin Creeks Distillery.
In his opinion, “mashing”, or the process of combining grains and other ingredients with water and heat in preparation for distilling, is what really gives any liquor its unique character and flavor.
“We use fruit grown on a local lake here in our hometown, and “Callaway grown” corn from just up the road from our distillery.
But all that attention to detail is worth it to Chris in the end when you’re able to produce Virginia moonshine and craft spirits that taste great and tell a story.
“It is intense, and a lot of hard work,” he admits. However, certainly worth it at the end of the day once you’ve sampled the finished product.
While Chris absolutely loves everything that Twin Creeks Distillery produces, he does have a favorite of their craft spirits.
“Copper Corn,” he says. And tells us why. “It is robust and earthy in flavor; a 100 proof corn liquor, unaged and clear, crafted from ingredients and folks within a ten mile radius of the distillery.”
Coming together as a Virginia moonshine community
Being “underrepresented and regulated to death.”
That’s what Chris would tell you are the two biggest struggles for his, and any other independent distillery in the United States.
In the same breath, he’ll gush about how it’s all worth it when you have the support of your local community and are able to put something of value back into it.
Virginia moonshine from Twin Creeks Distillery offers a peek into Franklin County moonshine history.
“The people of our community have been our biggest supporters,” Chris remarks.
“From local farmers, musicians, business owners, and residents; each has played a role in the success of Twin Creeks Distillery. We continue to collaborate and stay as local as we can. This creates a community feel and encourages a supportive atmosphere for us.”
Chris readily admits that he got into the distillery business because of his love for the craft, Virginia moonshine, and all that comes with it. Not for the money.
Which means Chris is living his dream.
He’s genuine and authentic in his approach to making Virginia moonshine in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The distilling methods and family history that comes with the spirits we produce,” that’s what Chris thinks matters most.
He continues, “We love to connect with others who also have a story to tell regarding craft spirits.”
For Chris Prillaman of Twin Creeks Distillery, the ultimate goal is simple, “Preserve what’s been said to be a dying art; the hands on, woodsy ways of distilling in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”