DENVER – It all started with wine. Nick Calo, who lives in Denver with his wife and daughter, saw a video on YouTube on how to make wine out of Welch’s grape juice, two cups of sugar and bread yeast. From these humble Welch’s grape juice beginnings Calo was chosen to compete on a Discovery Channel reality series, “Moonshiners: Master Distiller,” which airs today, Wednesday, Dec. 14 on the Discovery Channel.
Back to the grape juice.
“I thought to myself, there’s no way it’s that easy,” Calo said. “The ingredients cost me $5, and I gave it a shot. I let it sit for three weeks, tasted it and realized it was a lot better than store-bought wine. I started to do more research and bought a press and started collecting wild muscadines out of the woods and other fruits on my property. I learned what kinds of things ferment and what doesn’t.”
Calo’s father was a police officer and wanting to shield his son from illegal activity, he kept some of his grandfather’s history from him while he was growing up. He didn’t learn that his grandfather was once a moonshiner in Virginia until after he’d passed away.
“They worked in a coal mine and didn’t make a lot of money,” he said. “The mines paid them in food tokens which they bought corn and sugar with to make moonshine to resell to make a profit.”
Making moonshine in North Carolina is illegal. A resident can home brew so many gallons of beer and wine per person. As soon as it’s put in a still, it becomes illegal.
“It’s not illegal to own a still,” he said. “North Carolina law is such that for you to be considered a criminal, you have to be caught in the act of making moonshine in a still and distributing it. You can have the ingredients and the equipment, but you can’t be caught doing it.”
Unlike wine or beer which is usually around 12% alcohol, moonshine is a high-proof liquor. It got the name “moonshine” because historically, it’s been distilled during the night to avoid discovery by law enforcement.
Popular during the Prohibition era, moonshine can be made from any grain or fruit, but is commonly made with corn which has a high sugar content. There are legal distilleries making moonshine not far from Lincoln County like Seventeen Twelve in Conover, South Mountain Distilling Co. in Connolly Springs, and Southern Distilling Company in Statesville.
Calo was in a Facebook group for home brewers and producers of Moonshiners: Master Distiller, a reality television show on the Discovery Channel, posted that they were looking for competitors.
“I love that show so I reached out to them,” he said. “It’s been a two-year process of interviews and meeting producers.”
In the episode that Calo competed in, he was pitted against two other brewers at a legal distillery in Tennessee. One was a home brewer and the other works at a legal distillery. Both of them had a lot more experience than Calo.
“It really opened my eyes to how reality TV works,” he said. “The challenge was to make 20 gallons of mash (corn wine which is filtered and put in a still to be condensed into moonshine) for $30. Anything that the brewer forages or grows can be counted as free. I didn’t know what it would be until around two weeks before. I grow my own corn and I had just enough left to do what they were asking. At the time while they were filming it, I had a hive of honeybees, so I harvested about a gallon of honey from it.”
The episode that Calo competes in airs today, Wednesday, Dec. 14 on the Discovery Channel. Should he win, Sugarlands Distilling Company in Gatlinburg, Tennessee will do a run of his liquor.
“It feels so surreal that I’m going to be on national television,” he said. “I was starstruck the whole time I was there. You’re there with ‘the’ moonshiners like Mark and Digger and Tim and Tickle. I see them as the Godfathers of moonshine. I hope one day that North Carolina law changes so people can make their own moonshine if they don’t sell it. A lot of states are doing that.”
Calo hopes to one day open his own legal distillery.
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