A Spirited Tale of Grace, Grit, and Whiskey
By Troy Ball
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Troy Ball: I'm Troy Ball and my book is Pure Heart: A Spirited Tale of Grace, Grit, and Whiskey.
Suzy Chase: I love that you say you found your life's purpose in trying. Give us a little background on white whiskey, AKA white lightning, AKA Mountain Dew, AKA moonshine.
Troy Ball: [Laughs] Well first of all, I'd never even really heard of moonshine, because I grew up in Texas. And it wasn't until we moved to Asheville, North Carolina, that I was introduced to it. I mean, legitimate, not legitimately, I was illegitimately introduced to it, I should say. But I got my first sample of moonshine when we moved here to the mountains and it was terrible! [Laughs] And I was like "what is this? I'm not going to drink this!" Cause it burned, it was, you know, just not something that was pleasant to drink. And you know, after a while, I finally told these old men that were bringing me the jars of moonshine, I said, "you know, I just don't like this stuff, just don't waste it on me, give it to somebody else who might enjoy it." And that was when I found out that the good kind of whiskey was kept at home and not given away. Did you know that?
Suzy Chase: No I didn't.
Troy Ball: It's an interesting thing. They finally after months and months, they told me, they said "Troy, you know, the keeper whiskey, the best whiskey, is kept, it's not sold in a fast car down the road. It's kept to enjoy." And I was like, well, if you ever get a jar of that, I would be curious to taste that. I can't imagine that it's much different. Well I was quite shocked when finally, four months later, I get a jar of this really well made white whiskey, or moonshine. And it was smooth, and it didn't have that rubbing alcohol smell to it, and it didn't burn your mouth when you took a sip. It was fascinating.
That sort of set me on this adventure trying to figure out could I learn to make it? And if I could, could I bring it to market? My thinking was in America we didn't have a white whiskey on the market that was really well made, and handcrafted. And if we had one, my gosh, we could be drinking American cocktails. We could be drinking American cocktails, made with a white spirit instead of Russian cocktails, or Mexican cocktails, so it just seemed like there was a hole in the market there. And I thought maybe I could fill it.
Suzy Chase: What is the term "pure heart" mean?
Troy Ball: Well, that's interesting. The title of the book really comes from both my life story with my sons, and then from making whiskey. When you're doing a whiskey distillation, and you first start boiling the mash, the vapors that come off the mash at the beginning are called "the heads", and those heads contain acetone, like fingernail polish remover, and aldehydes, and methanol. Many things that give you headaches. And so what we do is we capture 100% of the heads, we don't just say "oh we'll just take one or two percent", we are absolutely positive that we are out of the heads before we start capturing the pure heart of the distillation. And at that point, the whiskey smells divine, it'll make your mouth water when you smell the distillate coming off the still. And it is just a beautiful part of the distillation.
Towards the very end of the distillation, you start producing fusel alcohols, and this happens at higher temperatures. Your big pot, basically we're using a pot still, it gets hotter as the distillation goes on. And those fusel alcohols change the nose of the distillate. So if you're careful and pay attention, you'll realize that all the sudden the nose, the smell, has changed. And that smell is indicative of fusel alcohols now being produced, which are oily, and really dirty, and the nose can go from this beautiful, like fruity, luscious nose, to one that's like musty and old socks, you know just really terrible. So the pure hearts are just right in the middle of the distillation, and that's all that capture to make Troy and Sons whiskey.
Suzy Chase: This book is really two stories: your life as a dedicated mother and wife, and your life as an entrepreneur. Talk a little bit about your sons and the challenges and the inspiration that you got from them to find your passion.
Troy Ball: Well, you know, like many women today and of my generation, I went to college. I was the first in my generation, in my family, to go to college and graduate. And I was kind of an overachiever, and planned, you know, be a business woman and do things in my life, and I got married, and had my first son, and at six months of age it became clear that he was not thriving. He wasn't developing strength, and he couldn't sit up, and he really couldn't hold his head up well.
By nine months of age, the doctors were very convinced there was something wrong with him, and I was pretty much in denial, because I just couldn't get my head around that. So they thought his condition was birth-related. So two years later, I have his brother, and he's sitting home healthy and normal, just like Marshall was, and at four or five months of age, he develops of seizure disorder, just like his brother had. And so now, it had become clear that I've got two children who have an undiagnosed genetic disorder.
It was just life changing, as you can imagine, because now I had to tell myself, and convince myself, that this was my job. It was my job to try to figure out how to help these boys, how to give them opportunities, and solve the problems they had in their lives, and just to keep them alive was a challenge. They were very medically fragile, and I mean, there were days I was in the doctor's office three days a week, for months at a time, and this went on for years and years.
It was challenging, you know, you're an entrepreneurial, spirited woman yourself, and when you all the sudden look at your friends, and their moving on with their lives, and they're becoming business people, or chefs, or judges, or doctors, and you're feeling like you're totally trapped because you need to take care of these boys. And you want to. You love them to death, right, but you also don't have the option of doing anything else, because their care is 24 hours a day, and at that point in our lives I certainly couldn't afford to pay for people to help me care for the boys. So it was a huge undertaking, and I was told they wouldn't live past the age of 10. And today, they're 30 and 28, can you believe it?
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.
Troy Ball: You know, I had to just tell myself ... And what was kind of fascinating is when I was about 40, I happened to meet Ann Richards, who was at that time Governor of Texas. And one of my girlfriend's mentions to me in passing that Ann Richards didn't get involved in politics until she was 50 years old. And I was like "Wow! Are you kidding me?" She enters politics at 50 and by 60 she's Governor of Texas. But it was inspiring to me, because that was the first, you know, person I had met who had basically stepped into some sort of field as a 50 year old and been able to achieve something. And so that gave me some hope. Honestly, I'm really sincere about this. I said "You know what? If she could do it, I can do it. I'm just going to have to be patient."
Suzy Chase: Well years ago, you read an article that said the people who are lucky who make connections. And, I think, the pivotal connection for you was Forrest [inaudible 00:08:59].
Troy Ball: Yes, Forrest was amazing, cause he's the one who first started bringing me the moonshine, and sharing the stories with me. And then when I decided I needed to learn how to make it, after he brought me that keeper jar of moonshine, he's of course the first call I made was back to Forrest to try to talk to him into finding someone who could teach me how to make moonshine. And he went on and on, he's bigger than life, his character, I mean, I hope that came through in Pure Heart, because his expressions are just something like you've never heard before. I mean, he's so funny and clever with words, and dear, and he's just like "Troy, there is no way in hell anyone is going to talk to you about how they make whiskey. We don't talk about [inaudible 00:09:47]. We don't even acknowledge whose doing the cooking." So I said "Forrest, look, I'll sign an NDA, you can blindfold me, whatever we need to do to get me there, but I promise you I will not disclose who they are, and where they live. I just need to figure out can I learn how to make this whiskey." So that was the beginning of my journey.
Suzy Chase: You looked like the junior leaguer with the pearls and he was like the rough mountain guy, but I feel like you have more in common than it looked from the outside.
Troy Ball: Absolutely. You know when I was a kid I was a horse girl. I rode horses, and showed horses, and when I was maybe a freshman in high school we moved out to a small, small town outside of Houston, Texas, where my graduating class had 77 kids in it. And I did everything on the farm. My dad treated me always as if I were the first son. He'd say "Troy we gotta build some fences today. Come on. You gotta get going." It'd be seven in the morning on a Saturday and I'd be dragging myself out of bed, and I'd be operating tractors with post hole diggers, and stretching barbed wire, or we'd be building some sort of a platform somewhere, or we'd be feeding hay to cattle, and all sorts of things. So I always was very comfortable getting dirty doing things. I didn't, you know, it was just part of what I did most of my life with my father. I just had to figure out how to problem solve things.
Suzy Chase: Now, how did you come up with the recipe? Talk about the process of finding the perfect taste between the heads and the tails.
Troy Ball: When we were in this little barn for almost a year, out there in [inaudible 00:11:43] on the farm, we basically did test distillations just like if you were cooking any recipe, if you were creating a recipe to make a particular type of cake, or stew, or whatever, soup. We would do test distillations and test fermentations. So we would test white corn against yellow corn, because you know those are very different kinds of corn, right. We would test different milling techniques. Did it matter if we had finally ground the corn versus using just a coarse grinding of the corn? Did it affect the flavor? If we used sugar, or no sugar, if we used a wild yeast versus a bought yeast? We also sprouted grain on site and then tumbled it and then threw it into the fermentation like making a malted whiskey.
So we just experimented for a year out there with each distillation and I kept very meticulous notes and notebooks. And John [inaudible 00:12:46], who also is a big character in the book Pure Heart, he was just so entertained by me because I was very tidy and neat. I would have my little folding plastic table that I would set up with my computer and my notebooks. And he was a regular, like, collector of everything. I mean there was just junk everywhere, because you never knew when you'd need something on these farms, right. So I was always after him to straighten up or tidy up or throw away and he'd say "Troy, no, no, we can't throw that away, we might need it." And sure enough, you know, when we needed to try to figure out a way to warm our little distillery there, I'd say "John we've got to do something, it's like 30 degrees in this building, and there's no way we can keep the mash fermenting at those cold temperatures", and he'd say "You know I have an old heater out in the back of the other building over there, let me go find that." And you know, he could scrounge up anything off of his own property.
We had a fun, wonderful time there. It was great. But the recipes over time were perfected right there in that little barn. And he was growing a crooked creek corn, which was an old heirloom variety corn that had been grown on their family farm since the mid-1800s. And we were testing this heirloom corn against commercial corn, trying to, you know, validate that the flavor was richer and more beautiful. It was all just a work in progress, but sadly when you do a recipe to make whiskey, it takes a week to 10 days before you get to taste it, cause you have to cook the mash, and boil it, and then lower the temperature and put it into fermentation barrels, and let it work in the fermentation barrels for, you know, a week sometimes.
Originally we were using wild yeast because one of the old men had used wild yeast to make his whiskey. Basically, you know, there's just wild yeast in the air and if you were to set out a barrel that you've cooked any kind of grain -
Suzy Chase: It just lands in it?
Troy Ball: It just lands in it and slowly over time, you'll watch and in a week or so all the sudden you'll see little bubbles coming up from that barrel. And the next thing you know, it'll be gently boiling, and I thought "This is too slow, we'll never make a viable business if we're sitting around here waiting on wild yeast". So eventually I went and started buying yeast.
Suzy Chase: The crooked creek corn, do you think the higher fat content makes for a better whiskey, with that corn?
Troy Ball: I think so. I think that corn gives the whiskey a lovely, richness. You know, the flavor ... what do they say? Flavors in the fat, right?
Suzy Chase: Yep.
Troy Ball: And this is the highest fat content that the researcher over at the University of Tennessee had ever seen in a corn. So I believe it does give the whiskey a beautiful, luscious kind of a flavor that you wouldn't normally get, yes.
Suzy Chase: So yesterday I watched the Popcorn Sutton documentary. Oh my gosh! He was a character. And -
Troy Ball: Oh my gosh! [Laughs] He was.
Suzy Chase: That was back breaking work. Has it gotten easier?
Troy Ball: Well, the way he was doing it was basically the way we did it in the little distillery out there in [inaudible 00:16:34]. It was all, you know, we were lugging buckets full of mash, we didn't have any pumps, we didn't have ways to clean things easily, it was very difficult. But today, you know, our distillery is located in Nashville now. We are able to transfer mash from the mash cooker over to the fermenters and then to the still, just all by pumps and hoses, and so life is much simpler.
Suzy Chase: Thank goodness.
Troy Ball: But Popcorn was [inaudible 00:17:06] and you know, I thought he had gotten arrested for making moonshine.
Suzy Chase: No.
Troy Ball: But the reason he was sent back to the jail that last time was because he was a felon.
Suzy Chase: Yep.
Troy Ball: And he wasn't supposed to have firearms. And he was at some little demonstration at a fairground or something, a little moonshine demonstration showing people how a still worked, and an ATF person sort of befriended him and he ends up showing this guy that he's got all these firearms.
Suzy Chase: Oh no.
Troy Ball: And that's why he was arrested. Uh huh. So anyways, the story's always not exactly what people think, but he was kind of a [inaudible 00:17:56]. It wasn't like it was destined to be a quality product. It was always just made in a hurry, and get it out the door.
So that was the problem, see when prohibition came around, and moonshine making, or actually it was whiskey making prior to that, right, it started to use the name moonshine during prohibition because of people needing to cook at night so that they're fires would not be detected. It was kind of at that time that whiskey went downhill, because now it was illegal to make it, people were in a hurry, and they were just trying to mass produce lots of whiskey because there was such a demand for it. You couldn't buy it anywhere. You couldn't buy it legally. So that's when the quality of whiskey making diminished. Prior to that, people were probably making better quality whiskies because they were just making it for themselves. There wasn't this big demand in a way to make easy money by making whiskey to sell.
Suzy Chase: So now you have perfected it.
Troy Ball: We ... Yeah I'm fairly happy because we've won gold medals with our whiskies, we've been rated high as 95 points with our whiskies, so I feel like we're making very high quality products that I'm really proud of. I think Troy and Sons are beautiful whiskies. And they're also a feminine style whiskey. They're lovely, and softer, easier to drink, because they're just made from the pure hearts.
Suzy Chase: Last night I made your favorite cocktail recipe that's on page seven, and it was really, really smooth. And I don't drink whiskey but it was really, really smooth. Now what I was wondering, in this cocktail, do you chill the moonshine, or do you just drink it room temperature?
Troy Ball: You can chill it. With that, I would probably put it on the rocks. You know, did you make the harvest moon margarita, or which one did you make?
Suzy Chase: Yes it's the orange juice and the lime and the simple syrup.
Troy Ball: Yes. I put that on the rocks. So the whiskey does not have to be chilled, but you can certainly keep it in the freezer, and just pour it and use it chilled just like you could a vodka. That's a recipe they use at Disney.
Suzy Chase: Oh really?
Troy Ball: At the Wilderness Lodge. Yes. It's a very, very popular recipe there.
Suzy Chase: I do want to mention in 2010 you were the first woman license in the state of North Carolina and the fourth in the entire United States. That's incredible!
Troy Ball: You know what I realized later? Is that the other three women who had licensed distilleries before me, they were not making whiskey. They were making, one was making I believe a vodka, and the other was making a gin, and I think the third was making maybe a tequila or something, you know, she was importing something. But yeah, so I think I was the first woman in modern times to have a licensed distillery, with the goal to make whiskey. [Laughs]
Suzy Chase: Where can we buy Troy and Sons whiskey? And where can we find you on the web?
Troy Ball: You can go to troyandsons.com, you can click "buy a bottle" there and it will route you to a retailer that can ship bottles to you, if by chance we're not in a state that you're in. Also, at Asheville Distilling Company, you know, you can come in and take a tour of the distillery on Fridays and Saturdays. We'd love for people to come by and when they're at the distillery they can taste the whiskies. That's fun too. And of course, I'm doing my book tour right now, so on the book tour, in many locations, we're actually pouring samples of the whiskey too, so it's a spirited book tour! [Laughs]
Suzy Chase: Wonderful! Gosh there's so much more we could cover, including Chris Martin from Coldplay, but I encourage everyone to buy this incredible book. It's a tale of love, hope, and persistence. Thank you Troy for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Troy Ball: Thank you so much. Take care.