Distillery to host first tours
Robert Bondurant always saw his business, the Bondurant Brothers Distillery in Chase City, as more than a place to make the moonshine his grandfather and uncles made famous in rural Franklin County nearly 90 years ago. Robert Bondurant saw the distillery as a place to preserve the history of that time and memory of those people.
The distillery will be open for tours and tastings this weekend on Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. The experience is available for $10 will start at the top of every hour, and there will be moonshine and swag available for purchase in the distillery store.
As for the Bondurant Brothers, their moonshining journey began in 1929 after the start of the Great Depression.
Money was scarce, and jobs were hard to find. Franklin County, like many rural areas, was hit especially hard. Families still had to be fed, though, and for some, moonshine whiskey was the key.
The Bondurant Brothers, Jack, Forrest and Howard, happened to be from Franklin County, considered by most historians to be the moonshine capital of the world. It was estimated that at one time, 99 out of every 100 citizens in Franklin County was involved in moonshining in one way or another.
The Bondurant Brothers quickly developed a reputation for making exceptionally good moonshine and a lot of it. It was a lucrative trade, and business was good. It was also a hard and dangerous way to make a living.
Not only did the brothers have to keep an eye out for “revenuers,” the Treasury Department agents charged with catching moonshiners, they had to watch out for rival moonshiners. They also had to keep an eye out for corrupt local officials and law enforcement.
A two-year undercover investigation by the Treasury Department led to the “Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935.” The trial made national headlines, not only highlighting the illegal liquor industry but also the corrupt officials who managed to profit from the trade.
The investigation resulted in the arrest and conviction of several moonshiners and a number of local law enforcement officials.
The trial also brought the Bondurant Brothers national fame.
In time, the story of the Bondurant Brothers faded from most people’s memories. The story came back to public attention with the publication of a book by Matt Bondurant titled “The Wettest County in the World,” followed by the release of a major motion picture, “Lawless,” based on the book.
With his family’s story brought to the attention of a new generation and accompanied by a newfound public fascination with moonshining, reflected in books, movies and television shows, Robert Bondurant became convinced that the time was right to bring back the old family business. He settled on an old grain mill in Chase City as the home of the new distillery.
Although the family history was not generally discussed, family members still knew the story, and they knew the recipe. Robert Bondurant knew the techniques the brothers had used during the Prohibition Era and decided to not only make the same moonshine but to make it as close to the way his grandfather and uncles had made their illegal shine nearly 90 years ago.
He grinds his own corn in an old, 1920’s vintage, gas-powered grinding machine. He malts his own barley.
The two biggest differences in his ancestors’ shine and his is that his grandfathers operated outside the law, and outside of a building, setting up their still near creeks in secluded areas deep in the woods. Robert Bondurant does the same thing in a more comfortable and secure building, legally and following all the rules and regulations.
From the start, he planned to offer tours of the distillery, showing how spirits are made, especially the moonshine for which his family became famous. However, the government had a lot of rules and regulations with which he first had to comply.
This weekend will mark the distillery’s first tours, which will include a discussion of the family history and the moonshining process.
Future tours will be scheduled on a regular basis, with the times and dates to be announced.
Speaking this week, Robert Bondurant said it was always his intention to open the distillery for tours, partly to keep the history of his ancestors and their fellow shiners alive and as a possible attraction to bring more visitors to Southside Virginia and Chase City.