With Dry January just about over, we want to tip our hat and raise a glass to Short Mountain Distillery.

Nestled on the border of Cannon County, Short Mountain could seem like a world away from Nashville, particularly for members of the LGBT community who are accustomed to thinking of the rural South as a place to be avoided.

For those in the know, however, Short Mountain and its surroundings have long welcomed LGBT people, particularly those on the margins. But chances are, unless you’ve seen the name on a bottle of moonshine, you haven’t heard of or don’t know much about the place.

Short Mountain Sanctuary, a collective providing queer safe space, has been the center of a thriving counter-culture LGBT community in rural Cannon and Dekalb Counties since its founding in 1980/81. It’s annual Spring and Fall gatherings attract visitors, who run the gamut from city dwellers seeking a spiritual or communal experience in the woods to radical fae from other communities, from around the world.

Many who are drawn to the area by encounters with likeminded individuals live in the surrounding communities, and have, over the years, become part of the towns and villages around the mountain. The thriving LGBT presence centered on Short Mountain has often gone unacknowledged, though, and for many this is a welcome fact.

Last year, however, that anonymity was broken as a feature in the New York Times by Alex Halberstadt entitled “Out of the Woods” shined a bright light on that unconventional world.

From Los Angeles to Woodbury, Tennessee

For some, that light brought unwelcome attention to a world intentionally lost to the surrounding culture. On the other hand, awareness draws new blood and new life to communities like Short Mountain and nearby Woodbury. An excellent case-in-point is Billy Kaufman, founder of Short Mountain Distillery. When Kaufman decided to call it quits on the Los Angeles rat race, it was his knowledge of the strong LGBT presence around Short Mountain that initially drew him to the area.

“I came out here fifteen years ago,” Kaufman recalled. “I wanted a farm, but I had no idea about farming, I had no idea about Tennessee, really, except I had a bunch of friends here because of the Sanctuary. I knew gay people in this area who are into farming. I looked around—I didn’t want to be the only gay person living out in the country. I wanted a community.”

What he found exceeded his expectations: he found something more than an LGBT community. “You know there is just nothing else like it on the planet. I bought a big farm and very quickly realized it’s not really a gay community here: it’s just a community of people,” he said. “There’s farmers, there’s workers who commute, there are families that have been here a hundred years—all sorts of people, all just trying to get along and having to work together for it.”

While he found in the community something he was seeking, farming just didn’t pay off. “I found myself farming with these old farmers who weren’t really making any money farming—there’s not any real money to be made in farming out here,” he explained. “Once you pay off your equipment and your losses, you might break even. Some people make business around here in the nursery business, but farming is like a dying art.”

Discovering Moonshine

So how did Kaufman make his way to moonshine? Those old farmers enlightened him. “I learned quickly that these old guys were making moonshine for money on the side,” he explained. “And that got me thinking—I’d give some to people from the city and they loved it. I didn’t think of it as being illegal back then, I was just sharing country moonshine I got from these old guys. But people were excited—they didn’t know anyone still made it or how to get it on their own.”

Indeed, Kaufman’s farm has its own storied history with moonshine dating to long before Kaufman was born. Pointing to a photo hanging over the shop counter in the distillery, Kaufman said, “This guy, Cooper Melton, was the owner of this farm during Prohibition, and he was a moonshiner. Tennessee went into Prohibition before the rest of the country, and given Tennessee’s huge tradition of distilling, a lot of locals became moonshiners. When the rest of the country went into Prohibition, Tennessee became a moonshining center.”

Long after Prohibition ended nationally, some locals continued to make illegal moonshine. This makes sense for Kaufman, who explained, “When I moved here this was a dry county, and in the country a lot of people just still bought illegal moonshine. You have to remember that Prohibition effectively ended in Cannon County in stages: when we were allowed to sell moonshine at the distillery and when we got the license to serve alcohol by the glass in the Stillhouse Restaurant at the distillery.”

Ending Prohibition in Cannon County

Kaufman was considering taking up illegal moonshining himself around the time he met Christian Grantham. Grantham and other friends cautioned Kaufman that this would be a terrible idea, as he could lose his 400-acre farm if he were arrested. Even though Tennessee had recently legalized moonshining and other distilling statewide, it was still banned in Cannon County, which was completely dry.

“I told him he was going to lose his farm if he did that,” Grantham recalled. “So [Kaufman] asked me, ‘How do we do it legally?’ And I knew enough—because I had followed the changes in the state law—to know that he needed to run a county referendum. He saw that I could help him, and asked me to assist.”

What had impressed Kaufman about the men he was learning from struck Grantham as well. “[Kaufman] introduced me to three moonshiners who blew my mind. They had never left the county. These were craftspeople, the descendants of people who were driven west by the whiskey tax as early as the American revolution and who fled into the hills to make their whiskey with the government out of the picture. And here they were, generations later, still doing it. This is the story of America!”

Collecting signatures invited a lot of conversations, which were eye-opening, especially for Grantham, who was a newcomer to Cannon County even by comparison with Kaufman. “As we were collecting signatures,” he recalled, “every person who signed it would say things like, ‘My aunt used to make medicine out of it, my uncle used to make it, my grandfather….’ I was blown away. I had no clue—I had no idea so many people had a connection. Their pride in that art was hidden: it was something they were ashamed of but they saw this as an opportunity to get out from underneath that shame and to shine. It passed in every single precinct.”

With the law changed, Kaufman could proceed with construction of the distillery and begin production of his Short Mountain Shine. Grantham helped Kaufman with his business plan. And just as Kaufman was driven to preserve the tradition of Cannon County moonshine, he was equally wed to his own family business tradition.

“My grandfather started Samsonite Corporation,” Kaufman explained. “He had a marble that they would give out, and around the marble it would say, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ They would do union negotiations based on that, they would negotiate with new trade partners based on that—it would really tell them what they stood for as a business. It allowed that company to be very diverse, and to grow, and for people to treat each other very respectfully.”

Kaufman and his brothers, who are his partners, decided to adopt the same business motto, so it appears on the back of every coin featured on each bottle of Short Mountain Moonshine, along with the three stars of Tennessee. “When kids come in with their family, we pop the coins off of a bottle and give it to them,” Kaufman said. “We put coins on all our bottles, and we change the design often so people can collect them. We have gone through about nine designs so far.”

A Recipe for Success

Kaufman’s vision was more than just to begin making moonshine. “When I started the distillery—we are the number six distillery in Tennessee—it was a very fresh, very new concept,” Kaufman said. “I decided we were going to make really highbrow moonshine and show the world what moonshine is all about.”

“The first thing we came out with is called Short Mountain Shine—and it’s the local, Cannon County recipe for moonshine,” Kaufman explained. “It’s 105 proof. We had three different moonshiners we talked to and they all made this recipe: almost every moonshiner in Cannon County has made this recipe for generations. It’s a sugar shine, and it’s got a very expensive grain bill because of the cane sugar.”

Kaufman rapidly diversified his offering. “Short Mountain Shine is a high proof spirit that you would treat like vodka or tequila,” Kaufman said, “but what I found was that most people want to drink stuff right from the bottle, so the second thing we came out with was the Apple Pie—it’s not a really high proof spirit, it’s only 40 proof.”

“This is the historic cocktail that people would make if they had a moonshiner in their family. It was a way of making the moonshine go farther and making it easier to drink. It’s a value-added thing you could do to the moonshine by making it a cocktail. So even moonshiners knew flavors sold!” Kaufman said, jokingly referring to the endless flavor combinations offered in today’s spirits market.

Moonshiners are nothing if not practical. “Not everyone knows how to drink the straight shine,” Kaufman said. “Give a bottle to that person and they’ll taste it and put it on the shelf where it’ll sit for a hundred years. But mix it with something and they’ll finish the bottle and come back for more. Apple juice or cider was accessible, relatively inexpensive and made a really good cocktail.”

Next came Prohibition Tea. “This one is a sweet peach tea, made by cold-brewing Lipton tea in the moonshine for three days and then sweetening it with sugar and a little peach. This one is a little stronger—60 proof—and is great with lemon, lemonade, Sprite, anything citrusy.”

Shiner’s Select is moonshiners shine. “People would tell us, ‘Your shine’s really good but it doesn’t taste like the shine they used to make here because it’s too smooth,’” Kaufman said. “So we were like, ‘We actually make the shine exactly like they used to make it, we just blend it in.’ So they said, ‘Well, let’s try not blending it in, because it has a completely different flavor. So let’s make it on the old pot still and separate it.’”

Shiner’s Select is the result. “It tastes exactly like a high quality illegal moonshine from Cannon County would have tasted like,” Kaufman said. “Illegal moonshine has a reputation for being harsher: so this has more flavor but is not as smooth as the Short Mountain Shine, which is slightly higher proof!”

Charred Shine is a product available for purchase only at the distillery. According to Kaufman, an early batch of Short Mountain Shine came out tasting a little different that the rest. Rather than risk their product’s flavor profile, they barreled and aged that batch in charred oak barrels. “Bourbon lovers and whiskey lovers will enjoy this,” Kaufman promised. “We aged this for a little over two-and-a-half years. It’s smoother than any bourbon or whiskey: it’s not as complex a flavor but the finish is very smooth, and that’s moonshine.”

Around February or March, the distillery will be releasing a 100% organic, corn-based product as well. “That is an authentic way to make moonshine because there was time when sugar was not readily available during depression and during war, and they would make moonshine with just corn.” The product is charcoal filtered, giving it a smokiness reminiscent of Tennessee whiskey.

A Crowded Market

Kaufman’s moonshine is made to an exacting standard according to a historically verified recipe and process, and when he makes a flavor he uses natural ingredients and infuses the flavors in-house. This sets him apart from his competitors in terms of quality, but it has also put him at a disadvantage in a market that doesn’t fully appreciate the value of quality moonshine.

Kaufman compared the challenge of trying to market his high-end, carefully quality-controlled product to that of a baker who is “coming out with something that looks like a Twinkie that’s actually a fine pastry. This pastry is excellent and it’s worth ten dollars a serving, but everyone looks at it and says, ‘But it looks like a Twinkie, and I can get a Twinkie for a dollar!’ So when people compare my product to those cheap jars, I have to say, ‘No, no, no—think again!’ So that’s my challenge.”

Compounding the issue, shortly after he opened his distillery, the market was flooded by cheaper competition. “Thirty distilleries came in right after us,” Kaufman said. “They all came out with ‘moonshine’, and their take on moonshine is that it’s cheap. So all of a sudden I was trying to create this celebration of this really great recipe, but I got steamrolled by cheap moonshine. So here I am now trying to go into a restaurant and sell my product, they say, ‘Well, moonshine has a bad reputation.’ It has a reputation as not being good alcohol. But this is a great spirit, and what’s happened is that all these things in jars—they’re cheap and they’re going for the hillbilly look, but it’s not real moonshine.”

What constitutes “real moonshine” is exactly the problem though. “The government doesn’t regulate—if I’m going to make bourbon or whiskey I have to follow regulations in order to label it as that,” Kaufman explained. There are no such regulations for moonshine. “So the goal for them is to use the cheapest thing you can and make the perception be that it’s not supposed to taste good, or if you flavor it it’ll taste good. You fill the jars with cherries, add flavoring syrup. That’s why there are twenty different flavors from all these other distilleries. I don’t want to be in that business.”

Instead, Short Mountain Distillery will be sticking to its roots, expanding its lines in ways which honor the tradition and craft of moonshining.

A Destination

Since it’s opening, Short Mountain Distillery has enjoyed a steady flow of visitors, and Kaufman hopes to increase those numbers, both to promote his brand and his community. “The goal is to bring people to Cannon County to enjoy this last bastion,” Kaufman said. “It’s a rural oasis in my eyes, and there’s a lot of culture here that’s still here. We’re just preserving it and sharing it. The Stillhouse Restaurant is very nice. It’s an elegant day trip for people. We want people to come here and experience very welcoming rural experience: meet a moonshiner, drink some moonshine, eat a well-made home cooked meal, enjoy the country, and take a tour.”

The distillery welcomes guests, as well as hosts events. “We’ve hosted weddings, graduation parties, and people come here to take photos … we don’t charge people for that. The restaurant is a great space for office meetings, and even church groups will come out now. We’ve held concerts here—if musicians want a venue, this is a good outdoor venue. Car and motorcycle clubs meet here because there’s plenty of room to line the vehicles up, and it gives them a nice long drive to go on.”

The distillery even hosts an annual haunted woods, which combined this year with a similar event hosted by the local volunteer fire department. “We’ll keep adding new things but it’s slow. I’ve been here for fifteen years and we’ve been open for five, and look how long it took the fire department to partner up with us. This distillery is just starting to feel like part of the neighborhood, which in the country takes a long time. People’s memories are really long and they want to get to know you: It’s all about building community.”

“We have a diverse community. I sort of see Short Mountain as a microcosm for our country because you have all sorts of different people living here,” Kaufman said. “I think that we’re a model of what is positive in diversity. People are just trying to make things work, so people work together and if things bother them, they don’t make a big deal. I’ve never had an unkind thing said to me in Cannon County.”

Kaufman hopes that the community will continue to grow and strengthen, developing as even more diverse newcomers are attracted by the unique opportunities of what he called a rural oasis. “I see Cannon County in the next ten or twenty years really changing…. I hope we’ll see more artistic people come here, young people who want to get into farming, who want that sort of experience, homesteaders, craftsmen, people who have families.”

And Kaufman is willing to do his part to help develop the ideal of community that attracted him to his oasis in the first place.

For more information about Short Mountain Distillery, events and tours, visit shortmountaindistillery.com. Tours are generally offered, and the Stillhouse Restaurant is usually open, Thursdays through Sundays. The distillery and restaurant will be closed during the month of January, but tours will still be offered on Saturdays.

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

When I was 14 years old, I surreptitiously made my way through the stacks in the local library until I came to the Psychology section. One after one, I took down the books whose titles I thought would provide an answer, went to the table of contents and, if there were any, I flipped to the pictures.

Keep reading Show less

James Mai

Many of us have made resolutions and pledged ourselves to transforming some aspect, or aspects, of our lives. For some, these resolutions will involve career, budget, home ownership, etc., but for a LOT of us, they will involve various health, exercise and fitness goals.

Often, these resolutions are vague, like “lose weight” or “exercise more”, and way too often they begin with a gym contract and end with Netflix and a bag of takeout. Getting specific can help in holding yourself accountable for these commitments, though. So we thought it might be interesting to talk with a local gay trainer, James Mai, about his fitness journey, his work as a trainer and how he keeps himself motivated, and get some of his suggestions for carrying through on this year’s fitness resolutions!

Keep reading Show less

Bisexuality


Keep reading Show less