For moonshine maker, time is of the essence

Local men appear on popular show after developing method to speed up the aging process of whiskey

Fred McCormick

The history of moonshine twists and turns through the Appalachian Mountains like the creeks that hold the cold, clear water used to make the potent liquor.

The industry has evolved through the centuries, adapting from era to era. The latest innovation in moonshining is part of the current season of Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners." And the men behind the innovaction are natives to the Swannanoa Valley.

Chad Slagle (left) and Keith Mort (right) stir the first batch of Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey with Tim Smith.

The "Moonshiners" docudrama makes its way to Asheville this season and features appearances by Chad Slagle and his longtime friend and business partner, Keith Mort.

“We never thought we'd be on this show,” Slagle said. “We’re not moonshiners.”

They do, however, "dabble in a little bit of everything," he said.

“Keith and I approach things from two totally different angles,” Slagle said. “He’s an equipment-minded person, and I’m more of an abstract thinker. We approach the same end goal from two different directions.”

That dynamic makes the duo a "formidable team," Mort said.

Slagle and Mort are introduced into the story arc of Tim Smith, a mainstay on the show since it first aired in 2011. In an episode called "Whiskey Time Machine," the longtime friends and Owen High School alumni are tasked with helping Smith convert moonshine into whiskey.

Chad Slagle gives his approval of a shipment of Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey.

“Whiskey is aged in barrels. Moonshine is not,” Slagle said. “So Tim needed our help to speed up the aging process that would turn moonshine to whiskey.”

Slagle and Mort set out to accelerate the process of aging whiskey, an undertaking which proved to be much easier said than done. But the two knew exactly where to begin.

“Our big thing was attacking the wood used in the process,” Slagle said. “What he had to do was mimic the cyclic migration of alcohol through wood.”

Moonshine is typically made by distilling fermented corn mash. The product can be aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years, giving it whiskey's distinctive flavor and color. But Smith wanted to speed up the process.

"People have been trying to speed up this process for hundreds of years," Slagle said. "We  took a different approach. We decided we would worry about the scale of it later and set out to see if we could figure out if it could even be done at all."

Using salvaged parts from Biltmore Iron & Metal, Chad Slagle and Keith Mort have collaborated to build things such as a turbo-powered go-cart.

Their research took them to a place familiar to residents of Buncombe County, Biltmore Iron & Metal. There they searched for parts to make a prototype.

"We start every project in that junkyard in Asheville," Slagle said. "The parts are cheap, and you're buying them by the pound. If it doesn't work, you just recycle them."

The prototype the pair constructed allowed them to produce half a gallon of whiskey at a time. The science behind the advanced aging process proved solid when the first batch was produced. But the duo was a long way from being done.

"It tasted like crap," Slagle said. "We knew we were a long way off, but we understood that the process was viable."

The technology behind aging the whiskey was relatively easy, according to Mort, who has extensive experience in technology development. Ensuring the production of quality whiskey proved to be a little tougher.

"It's not just the flavor," he said. "There's the color, and the smell, and what kind of water do we use. We had to teach ourselves about all of this in a short period of time."

Slagle and Mort dedicated themselves to researching precisely what goes into making a quality whiskey.

The product of all their work is Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey, the latest offering from the Climax brand of spirits, named after Smith's hometown in Virginia.

The whiskey is made from Smith’s “century-old moonshine recipe aged and filtered with toasted oak and maple wood,” according to the Climax website.

The endorsement from Smith, who first collaborated with Florida-based Prost Beverage Co. to form the Climax Moonshine brand in 2013 when it launched in Georgia and South Carolina, speaks directly to how successful the efforts of Mort and Slagle have been. Slagle is pleased, especially because of concerns he and Mort didn't come from the moonshine industry.

"As much as we wanted our technology to be new, in application, we wanted to stay true to tradition," Slagle said.

Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey is not yet available in North Carolina, where new products require the approval of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. But it can be ordered at any ABC store, according to Slagle.

Tours, guided by Slagle and Mort, are available by calling Asheville Distilling Co. (828-575-2000), where the whiskey is produced.

Slagle and Mort appear in episodes 7 and 9 of the current "Moonshiners" season. Episode 9 airs Tuesday, Jan. 31.