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From Politics To ‘Moonshining’—Former Congressional Aides Fire Up the Still

  In the early 1940s, television audiences were entertained by the antics of the cantankerous television and cartoon moonshiner "Snuffy Smith." He was known for hiding his moonshine stills in the woods and making toe-curling white corn whiskey under the cover of night.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Former congressional aide Thomas Thacker showing off first product of moonshine distillery he owns with two other former political aides.

These days, no shoot-outs are called for because with the proper permits, moonshining is legal in North Carolina. The distillers are more sophisticated, such as a trio who worked for former North Carolina Congressman Larry Kissell. They opened a new distillery in Concord this year and are turning out moonshine while keeping in touch with their political roots.

Southern Grace Distillery is located in Concord's historic Warren C. Coleman building—the country's first African-American owned and operated textile mill.

Entering the warehouse-looking building, the strong smell of the alcohol in the making is evident.

“I love the fact that we use barley, I love that smell,” said Leanne Powell, president of the team behind this operation. She was Kissell's chief-of-staff and said his offices in Concord were also in a former mill, a tradition they wanted to keep.

Down a hall, sounds can be heard from a small back room of Perry Morris using a giant mixer to stir a mash of grain, yeast and other ingredients in one of three 275-gallon containers.

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The legal moonshine still used to produce Concord-based Southern Grace's Sun Dog 130. The distillery is run by three former congressional aides.

“Our mash is what makes all the ethanol,” Morris said as he picked up a large copper coil that he used to keep the mash’s yeast chilled. “When the yeast eat they produce a lot of heat and it’s our job to keep them cool and happy. It takes about six to seven days to ferment and then takes us probably a day to distill it, blend it and get ready to bottle.”

All of this comes second hand to Morris. Before he was Kissel’s campaign aide, the Texas native grew up helping his family make white corn whiskey.

“It was never a mass production of spirits, just in garages, not necessarily legal, but something my dad and granddad did. I guess it was the best dinner party ever,” he said with a laugh.

The third partner in the company is Thomas Thacker. He was Kissel’s former district deputy chief of staff.

“I have gotten a great deal of the credit and the blame for this,” he said jokingly. “I worked in bars and restaurants for most of my life before I got into the newspaper business (former editor of Wadesboro’s Anson Record) which led me to politics.”

So, now Thacker has sort of come full circle, thanks in part to Kissell losing to Republican Richard Hudson in 2012. Not long after, Thacker approached Powell about opening a distillery. She was intrigued.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Former Congressional campaign aide Perry Morris checks on the fermenting mash, the foundation for their moonshine product Sun Dog 130.

“I’ve been in politics since 1984 and talked about buy American and manufacturing, so it seemed to go together well—take Tom’s passion and me wanting to make something in America. We hooked up with Perry and found out he had a family history and it all worked out,” Powell said.

They’re now churning out 2,000 bottles a month of their first product, Sun Dog 130 proof moonshine, compliments of Perry Morris’ family’s recipe.

It’s great, very smooth…(and the recipe has) been around for quite a few years, but that’s about all I can say,” said Larry Morris, Perry’s father.

Larry Morris moved to Concord from to Texas to help set up the operation.  The distillery room he and his son put together is pretty basic looking. The 110-gallon rusty-colored still sits in a corner of a large, cold, sparsely-furnished room. There’s a big brown barrel beside the still. Collecting jugs are nearby and copper coils make hissing sounds, as the corn whiskey is distilled and redistilled until it meets all three partners’ satisfaction. 

“A moonshiner from 150 years ago could walk into our shop and except for the laptops, would recognize everything that's in it and know what to do with it,” said Thacker.

The moonshine bottle has a picture of a blue dog prominently displayed on the label, a definite sign of the partners’ political backgrounds. Kissel called himself a blue dog Democrat, an old term for conservative Democrats.

“It’s nothing we’re trying to be overt with. It’s just a quiet wink and dedication to our former boss,” Powell said. “Moderation is a good thing to stand for and we have a flag from a Democrat and Republican hanging in our distillery. We're proud of our background with Mr. Kissell and the fact that he was a blue dog.”

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Leanne Powell, former chief-of-staff for former Congressman Larry Kissell, puts labels on the first moonshine product at the Concord-based distillery she owns with two other former congressional aides.

The dog on the label is actually Thacker's deceased real-life dog Mia. He said a lot of people don’t know what a blue dog Democrat is but those who do make jokes about the label.

“Some Democrats who think no one's progressive enough, they say, ‘Man you just can't turn those blue dogs loose. You had to come up with one more of them.’ So people have had a lot of fun with it, but anything that draws attention to get someone to taste it is a good thing.”

The trio said they are enjoying their new career and are not missing their days in politics at all.

“I never thought I’d be doing this but I’m tickled how it’s worked out. I’m in the liquor business now,” Powell said with a hearty laugh.

As for the partners’ former boss Kissell, he helped them bottle their first batch but didn’t taste it.

“You know, I’m one of those guys who actually doesn’t drink,” Kissell said. “But I have on the best of references that this is good quality product and manufactured with pride in the USA, good stuff. I’m really happy for them.”

The Sun Dog 130 moonshine is in some North Carolina ABC stores and several bars and restaurants.  A dollar from each bottle sold goes to a charity, the first being an animal shelter.