CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The magic is in the cave, Tighe and John Bullock trust.
Tighe and his father, John, learned of its existence near Renick on the Greenbrier-Pocahontas county line. A geological engineer, John Bullock thought a distiller could use that water to churn out some fine spirits.
Tighe (pronounced “Ty”) had a more direct thought. “Why don’t we just do it ourselves, dad?” he asked the patriarch. So, like many things in the Bullocks’ world, the son just took a leap.
Come Dec. 18, the back room of 121 W. Washington St. no longer will be a place to tinker and experiment for Tighe Bullock and distillers Adam Anderson and Scott Ferris. That’s when The Bullock Distillery opens for business, culminating a few years of building equipment, trying new mash blends and procuring barrels and bottles.
“This has been great, because a still is sexy and cool to build,” Tighe Bullock said. “It uses science and math and a lot of gritty work. My dad and I are both good spatial thinkers.”
Distilling is in the family blood. In 1800s North Carolina, the Bullocks’ Uncle Charles combined distilling turpentine for ship sealing and liquor for drinking. Out of two separate stills, we assume.
Then there’s the cave, between the Greenbrier mountains to the east and Spring Creek Mountain on the west. It and the supporting land comprise 80 acres. Several layers of limestone filter the water.
“That water is invaluable,” John Bullock intones. “It draws from the roots of Droop Mountain.”
Its price tag suggests its preciousness. From a modest facility on the West Side, the Bullocks have some $1 million invested in the distillery and land.
COVID-19 influenced the pace of The Bullock Distillery. A few years ago, Tighe Bullock discovered development opportunities were slowing in the West Side’s Elk City District, where he and his dad, separately or together, own 10 buildings. At the beginning of last year, COVID ground all new projects to a halt.
Bullock employees Anderson and Ferris became full-time distillers. Ordinarily they would be remodeling Tighe Bullock’s buildings and office spaces, to accommodate tenants. Books and Brews owner Pat Pelley, home of the famous pepperoni roll, is one.
Anderson earlier this week gleefully described the $10,000 centerpiece still, a gleaming hunk of goldcolored metal. It dominates a deep, narrow room behind the distiller’s under-construction retail unit.
The central still is as a reflux variety, a skinny tower with sets of plates and plugs. As the temperature rises, the machinery holds back any impurities from the mash mixture, which can’t handle the heat. Vapors rise and are repeatedly condensed. What is left, if desired, is a 190-proof liquor — 95% alcohol.
Anyone who remembers a college “grain” party is familiar with that potency. Such alcohol possesses
little taste, aside from heat. Tighe Bullock predicts his “White Dog,” or moonshine, will be all that approaches that
threshold. Also in the works is a vodka, distilled high to weed out impurities. Water dilution, thank goodness, and a blending with other ingredients should calm it down.
Aside from the 80-gallon gold baby, the Bullocks also have a mostly home constructed system nearby, a combination of reflux and “pot” still.
A pot still is relatively uncomplicated. Mash is heated. Once it boils, alcohol will start to evaporate, finding its way to a coil immersed in cold. Liquid will follow. This is tasty whiskey, because it is not produced under such high temperatures. It retains the flavor of the mash. Every run is one condensation process, or batch.
At the other still complex, pot and reflux stills in tandem allow for both high-alcohol clear liquor and ordinary batches, such as bourbon.
“The largest reflux column is still under construction and is 100% designed and built by us,” Tighe Bullock said. “We’ve sourced scrap copper and West Virginia stainless steel from all over to weld and braze it together.”
That column should be online in the first quarter of next year.
Altogether, with two 500-gallon fermentation tanks, the distillery can produce about 300 proof gallons a week. A proof gallon is 50% alcohol by volume. With the home-constructed reflux column, that amount should double, Bullock said.
“Once we open here, we have the ability to ... we can really produce some major volume out of this place,” Tighe Bullock said.
Opening day will feature 900 bottles of limited release spirits — vodka, a 2-year-old barrel-aged gin and a 2-year rye. The rye and barrel-aged gin are bought from a distillery in upstate New York but will be tamed some with the cave water. The vodka will
be home distilled.
“White Dog” — Bullock’s version of moonshine – will be made with all state ingredients and should
be available next year. The younger Bullock has given plenty of attention to his baby, right down to the sign out front.
“The Bullock Distillery,” it announces in big letters. “Nil Conscire Sibi” on top and “Purveyors of Fine Spirits” at the bottom also appear.
The Latin stands for “to have nothing on one’s conscience.” At least not for a while.