A pair of legendary Georgia brothers revive their moonshine business — this time with a liquor license and distillery open to visitors.
It’s a short 12-mile drive on Hwy. 197, a typical snaky mountain road, from Clarkesville to Batesville, Georgia. When the water run-off slides over the highway, known as ‘the dip’ to locals, it’s about as unexpected as the Mark of the Potter, Georgia’s first craft shop that sits practically on the shoulder of the narrow two-lane road, known to some as the moonshine highway. However, it’s not what you see that declares its history, but what you can’t see.
This mountainous stretch is home to brothers Carlos and Fred Lovell — and to generations of Lovells before them. From the early 1900s until the early 1960s, the Lovell family, led by patriarch Virgil Lovell, lived and worked in the hills of Batesville, raising cattle, planting crops, showing foxhounds and, most importantly of all, making moonshine in the hidden valleys and backwoods. The legend of the Lovell’s illegal shine production and distribution put Batesville on the map.
“I was about 17 when I started toting liquor and sugar, back and forwards from the shack [still],” says Fred Lovell, age 85. “We make more liquor in the woods than we make here [Ivy Mountain Distillery]. There in the woods you had to slip and do everything because of the law. Sometimes you had to tote it a half-a-mile.”
Always looking out for what they couldn’t see, the Lovells were infamous for distilling and selling shine. For that reason, no matter their still location in North Georgia, they were always on a revenuer’s radar. “We’d put a shack up, and if we got cut down, we’d go back the next day and put one somewhere’s else,” says Fred.
By 1960, they were producing 125 cases per day; that’s six 90-proof gallons per case, which sold for around $16- $18. Government liquor commanded twice the price for less the proof, thus making illegal producers in demand and wealthy beyond most measures of the day.
“I was running 125 cases a day. Not one day, but every day,” boasts Carlos Lovell, age 86, owner of Ivy Mountain Distillery. There were regular customers, and the Lovells knew them by sight. “If you didn’t know them,” says Carlos, “you’d look the other way.”
And it was in 1960 that the multi-decade long moonlight operation came to a close with Carlos and Fred each charged with making liquor. Carlos escaped the charges, but Fred’s luck ended.
Their trademark spirits had traveled as far as New York, while the majority had been sold by the truckloads to individuals who transported cases to the farmer’s market in Atlanta for sale. When asked how they got away with that, Carlos lets out a hearty laugh and mutters, “I don’t know nothing about that.”
Fifty years later, Carlos and Fred are at it again, producing authentic whiskey built upon a time-tested tradition. Although it is based on their original ‘shine’ recipe, Carlos chooses to call it whiskey, the only sour mash whiskey produced in Georgia with malt made from scratch with local ingredients. In addition to the corn, it’s the natural spring water trucked in from their property just north of the distillery that complements its smooth taste.
“We make it now just like we did back then, but it’s much easier now,” says Fred. “We pretty well got the same recipe as when we started making liquor.”
Why get back into the liquor business?
Carlos points at the distillery’s co-owner and his daughter, Carlene Holder, and says, “It’s her fault.”
She smiles as he teases her and then recalls when Carlos told her in November of 2010 that he intended to make liquor again. “My immediate response to him was that he could not do so,” says Carlene. “He, in turn, told me that he would be doing so legally and that my job was to get the licenses.” As a former English teacher, she had no background in business, much less the formidable process of liquor licensing.
Nevertheless, she “did not do a lot of questioning. I continue to do as I am told, it seems, when it comes to daddy,” she says. After months of interviews and submission of hundreds of forms, the federal license was granted in April 2011, and the Lovells were on the road to acquire their local license.
Carlene continues, “My dad had intended to have the distillery outside of Clarkesville where the historic spring is located. A building that had previously been used for bottling the spring water was already in place, and the setting is picturesque. However, the city of Clarkesville would not give us permission to operate a distillery. There is no package store there, and they really did not want anything to do with liquor.”
Never accustomed to being told no, Carlos tried other locations and was finally invited by Mt. Airy, a city located within Habersham County and only a few miles from their original location, to join the community.
“Mt. Airy has always walked to the beat of a different drummer,” says Carlene. Property was purchased and construction began with the fully operational distillery up and running by October of 2011.
“Today,” says Carlene, “at Ivy Mountain Distillery, it is their dad’s [Virgil’s] recipe that is being used. Very few changes have been made, if any. Of course, they are not in the woods and the equipment is top of the line with all the comforts of being in a traditional workplace.”
Ivy Mountain Distillery’s products include Georgia Sour Mash, Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey, Georgia Peach Brandy and Apple Brandy. They are currently available in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and California. The Lovells will be serving samples at the upcoming Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, May 29-June 1, and as always, Carlos is eager to show off the entire process at the distillery in Mt. Airy. Just show up and he’ll share the government allotted ‘communion’ cup sized taste.
With moonshiners blanketing TV channels and stereotypes being reborn, Carlene quickly expresses her distaste at the thought of being pigeonholed.
“Our story is our life,” she declares. “Our product is not the stuff of college days and cheap white liquor. We don’t sit around in overalls and drink. Daddy has always believed that making whiskey is a business, and he treats it and runs it as one. Period. It’s the culture of a time and place. It’s history, and at Ivy Mountain we have a legend. We have a story to share, to tell.”
Click over to our Recipes section to get one for Shiner’s Smash using Ivy Mountain sour mash.
Photo credits, from top: Carlos Lovell standing over a barrel of shine from Ivy Mountain Facebook page; Carlos and Fred in front of the natural spring in Clarkesville, Georgia, a new run bottled and labeled and Carlos pouring a 3-gallon run from the still by full circle fotography; and Ivy Mountain barrels from Ivy Mountain Facebook page.
Ivy Mountain Distillery is located at 1896 Dick’s Hill Parkway, Mt. Airy, Georgia, approximately 80 miles northeast of Atlanta. There is more to this family’s story, and Judy Garrison is currently working on a book, The Liquor Maker’s Daughter, which will be published in 2015.