Local moonshine poised for wider audience

Rick Wagner • Jun 21, 2013 at 12:08 AM

KINGSPORT — Some Tennessee moonshine from Sullivan County may be headed up north and out west soon.

Destinations include New York, New Jersey and California.

But this moonshine is not hidden in car trunks or secret compartments of trucks. It’s legal and is selling in liquor stores in the Tri-Cities, including Kingsport, and soon across the Volunteer State.

If that popularity goes national it may bring more jobs to Sullivan County, and liquor produces tax revenue, too.

East Tennessee Distillery, maker of Roberson’s Mello Moon that is becoming known as Mello Moon, is headquartered in the old Paty Lumber Co. building in the Tri-County Industrial Park,

It was co-founded by three Northeast Tennessee natives: Stony Creek native Neil “Tiny” Roberson, a 6-foot-8-inch resident of Bluff City; Chinquapin Grove native and resident Byron Reece; and Bluff City-area native and resident Gary Melvin.

Roberson, who came up with the formula for the product, is the president and chief executive officer and master distiller; Melvin the executive vice president for accounting and finance and chief financial officer; and Reece the executive vice president of marketing and sales.

The three provided the program for the Thursday meeting of the NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership board meeting at the Domtar Cabin.

“It’s an old recipe done with modern technology,” Reece said of the moonshine formula.

The company employs the three co-founders and “four or five” family members, but if “conservative” growth plans hold, the three said the business will hire five new employees within a year and move up to about 100 in three or four years.

For instance, Reece said that if a proposed deal with a distributor and wholesaler to expand in New Jersey, New York and California goes through, those three states represent 12,000 liquor stores. Selling to 10 percent of those would require a 10-fold increase in capacity.

Mello Moon is in 80 stores in Tennessee down to Nashville, and Reece said they likely will expand to Memphis in a few weeks. Missouri is another market push area, Reece said.

Those are some of the reasons the company is building a newer, larger still, copper-lined stainless steel like the current one. That will bring capacity from 30 cases a day to 150 cases a day.

“There’s nothing like it on the market,” Reece said.

Melvin said a 2009 change in Tennessee law — which had limited distilling of liquor to three counties in Tennessee — opened the door for distilleries like Mello Moon and another in Sevier County. Basically, any county with liquor stores and municipalities with liquor by the drink can have distilleries, which encompasses about half of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

Roberson said the recipe is the heart of the business. He has a beard and wore Pointer brand overalls, made in Bristol, Tenn., by the official clothing supplier for East Tennessee Distillery.

“We came up with a recipe that is actually pretty good,” Roberson said.

Products are straight 100 proof, straight 150 proof, caramel 70 proof and, in two or three weeks, 70 proof strawberry, peach and coconut.

In August of 2011, the three started the process of becoming licensed to distill drinking liquor, a process they finished in a little more than six months, and they had the first product on the shelves in October of 2012.

Roberson said he had “tinkered” with making beer for years and was a lab technician for Nuclear Fuel Services for six years and for Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport for five years.

Melvin’s background included running an alarm company, and Reece had been in real estate, so they had to learn about distilling rules, regulations and laws from the ground up.

“We had a big learning curve to go into this,” Reece said.

They said the product proved popular at the spring NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway, an appropriate springboard since NASCAR got its start from drivers who delivered illegal moonshine and outran law enforcement competing against one another on dirt tracks in the mid-20th century.

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