When Donald G. Walton, Jr. left Onslow County to pursue a law degree in the 1980s, he never knew he would return to the area with a heart for distilling spirits much like his ancestors. “I fell in love with the distilling of bourbon while studying law in Kentucky. (When we started the distillery in 2013), bourbon was a very difficult spirit to start, so we began with our very own corn whiskey,” Mr. Walton said.
Distilling bourbon or whiskey is a time-intensive process involving locally sourced corn that is blanched to produce an enzyme-rich liquid. The spent corn is sold back to local farmers for their cattle, while the liquid stays to become the base of most distilled spirits. It is cycled through layers of fermentation to create grain alcohol. “The objective for whiskey,” Walton said, “is to condense alcohol and clarify the spirit.” For bourbon, the highest proof alcohol is then also exposed to a new aged oak barrel for 2-3 years. “During that time, the liquid breathes in and out of the wood, infusing its flavor, and letting the charcoal remove any impurities,” Walton said. Without any additional flavors, the final product is a clean flavor of earthy corn and smoked oak within the fire of a 90 proof alcohol.
Perhaps more approachable than the bourbon is the moonshines made by Walton’s Distillery. “My family had been distilling moonshine for generations in the woods,” Walton said, “and after some persuasion, I decided to continue on with the family recipe and distill moonshine as well.” At 40 proof or less, the moonshines are considerably lighter and come in fun flavors to pair well with drinks and cooking. My favorite was Mag Walton’s Peach Shine. Many guests raved about adding shots of it to sweet tea or champagne, but I think the bright fruit and floral notes will be especially fun to cook with. Equally beautiful is Kitty Walton’s Apple Pie Moonshine. Infused with real apples and all the spices of an apple pie, this shine has all the flavor of its name with the kick of the shine. I expect it to make fall cooking with apples extra special.
“Moonshine is more of a novelty product,” Walton says, “everyone wants to buy it thinking of the Prohibition era, and, in my family, our ancestors were making it here and transporting it to New York during that time (illegally). Most makers that make shine now do so as a hobby following the same regional methods of their ancestors to create a quick liquor with a cheap and fast yield.” That novelty is often quite personal for the guests at Walton’s Distillery; many come as descendants of moonshiners with familiar ties to what the Walton products offer legally today. Some have gifted Walton with photographs and memorabilia for display at the distillery.
Moonshining was such a source of pride in Walton’s own family that the cousin that helped start the moonshine still, Norwood Rochelle, shared his version of the generations-old family recipe without a penny of payment. “When he wouldn’t take payment,” Walton said, “I told him I would never sell a jar of shine without giving him credit for it. To this day, his picture is on every label.”
Family remains the heartbeat of Walton’s Distillery. Built in 2013 on the site where numerous illegal stills had previously operated, Walton’s Distillery is a family-owned and operated business. “All our products bear the names of my ancestors as a lasting tribute to them, the hardships they endured, the goals they obtained, and the legacies they have left,” says Walton.
Unlike beer and wine, distilled spirits cannot be sold online. This makes distribution and growth a real concern for the business. “The easiest part of this business is making the spirits,” Walton says. “The hardest part is marketing and selling. You’re out if you can’t get into an ABC Store. Without that, you limit yourself to local customers.” Growth and marketing for distilleries has to be creative. To that end, Walton’s Distillery hosts five open house events with live music and free food for the public. You can visit the distillery for tours and free tastings throughout the year, Monday through Saturday, from 10AM to 4PM at 261 Ben Williams Road, Jacksonville, NC 28540. For more information, check out their website at www.waltonsdistillery.com.