After Decades of Dodging the Law, a Moonshiner Goes Above-Ground
Walk the whiskey aisle at any well-stocked package store and you’ll come across more than a few albino spirits — clear “white lightning” standing tall among the caramel-colored heat. The straight-from-the-vat white whiskey trend has permeated far past the first round of opportunistic small-batch distillers, who made “moonshine” a scripted ingredient in dim basement dens where the bartenders wear trim vests and crisp aprons.
Now a second round of big name distillers have bolstered the numbers with pale incarnations of ryes and whiskeys that have never seen the charred inside of an oak barrel. It’s enough to make an obedient whiskey sipper (or stirrer) wonder if these straight-to-market spirits are simply clever marketing ploys.
That is, until they get a taste of Carlos Lovell’s whiskey. The formidable Georgia distiller has been finely crafting sour mash whiskey, aged and otherwise, since he was 16-years-old — that’s more than 70 years. His pale eyes twinkle a little as he holds a tiny paper cup under an enormous silver vat, collecting his raw elixir. Doesn’t matter if it’s here in his “city shack,” as he jokingly called his 1000-bottle-a-day distillery, or at his “country shack,” those make-shift operations miles out in the woods where he moonshined for most of his life, Carlos is the gentleman who can lay 100 percent authentic claim to this white whiskey territory — and then some.
“Making whiskey ain’t different than making a pot of soup … for me,” said Carlos, surveying batches of mash in various stages of production. And he’s right. For the rascal-in-chief at Ivy Mountain Distillery, making spirits is second nature. Staying true to his family’s 150-year-old recipe, Carlos decided to go above ground in 2012, at the prime age of 84. A self-taught businessman who defies every overalls-and-trailer park stereotype, Carlos makes bold, unapologetic aged and un-aged whiskeys under the Lovell Bros. label. And he does it with a generous, downright ornery spirit that you’d swear you can taste.
Lovell Bros. Whiskey is made in Mt. Airy, Georgia, a blip of a town just north of Cornelia, nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not far from where Carlos grew up, one of 10 children, seven of them boys. The 19-room house where he was raised must’ve been teeming with energy: His dad, Virgil Lovell, had a legendary moonshine operation and housed at least three main still operators, plus all sorts of “hands” at any given time.
Ivy Mountain General Manager Michael Yearwood has been regaled with the stories: People would show up at the Lovell house in the cloak of night and the still operators would take turns greeting them, loading the moonshine in and taking a cut of the sales. All the kids just grew up with it — they knew who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t, and would be tight lipped if the situation called for it. Most of the customers provided the trucks, with the product mostly making its way to Atlanta, which was dry during Carlos’ youth because of Prohibition.
Carlos remembers taking breakfast down to the guys working the still when he was 12 or 13, slipping several miles through the woods. When he was 16, he decided to stay home from school. “Daddy said, ‘What you doing home, boy?’ And I said, ‘I’m making moonshine.’ That was that,” he said. He carried on with the family business, hauling all of the equipment and the bottles to a still for each day’s work. “You couldn’t very well make it on the side of the road now could you?,” Carlos jabs.
“Daddy said, ‘What you doing home, boy?’ And I said, ‘I’m making moonshine.’ That was that.”
Eventually Carlos got married and struck out on his own, first attempting a life of farming potatoes, which he did not seem to take to, then starting his own little general store. All his old moonshine buddies could still be found hanging around — and it was almost certainly easy to come by a jar of strong spirits. His wife’s father pretended to be sour about him selling moonshine, but Yearwood recalls one of Carlos’s many colorful stories: When his father-in-law would stop by, he’d always take a small bit of whiskey out of each jar, thinking no one would notice. Carlos would tell his father-in-law to just take a bottle, but he’d rebuff.
Carlos became a clever businessman, financing other endeavors. By his account, he “just tinkered,” buying and developing land, raising chickens and trading cattle. But these were no small operations; Carlos had the largest chicken operation in the county at Lovana Farms, raising half a million chickens every six weeks. A private, 18-hole championship golf course called the Orchard was developed on part of his land that once housed plum trees. Retirees now sip their Scotch there, unaware of its previous life. “But it was always whiskey that kept food on the table,” said Carlene Holder, Carlos’s daughter, the co-owner of Ivy Mountain who helped him take his whiskey business above ground. “Plus, I learned that he loved it.”
People have their theories as to why Carlos legitimized his business at the ripe age of 84 — perhaps it was the downturn in the economy that made real estate less enticing, or maybe he was just plain bored. No one could say for certain. Holder said she was just sitting in his den when her dad mentioned creating a legit whiskey business, seemingly out of the blue. Holder says she told him, “You can’t.” She should’ve guessed what his response would be: “Can, too.”
“He likes a challenge,” she said. “If someone tells him that he can’t do it, he wants to do it more. He’s gutsy.” Carlos says he doesn’t know what came over him, but he knew that his daughter Carlene was smart, so she could figure out the considerable legal hoops they’d have to jump through. His instincts proved quite right: Holder was just the personable and determined person to make the business a reality.
Lean and spry, Carlos has a gentle, comfortable, “hand-in-the-pockets” demeanor and a glimmer of smart mischief in his eyes. Within a few minutes of meeting Carlos, you’ll know that he’s the type of guy who does life his way. Though he’s ever the charmer, if you ask him a question, he’s liable to answer with the story he wants to tell. He’s not shy about being the center of attention — or pouring you another drink if he feels you need one. (Carlos himself is more of a taster than a drinker, so don’t expect him to go drink for drink with you.)
And there are plenty of misadventures worth discussing over a few cups of his sweet, booze-forward spirits. Though Carlos has been caught moonshining, he never has been convicted. He chuckles when thinking about how police would tip them off back in the day. Local cops would tell them they were thinking of “going fishing” around where they were working, giving them time to clear out the operation. He and his partners would carry every bottle and piece of equipment — including the giant still — out into the tall cornfields, hidden in plain sight until the coast was clear.
One legendary family story is centered on Carlos’s brother Fred, who has long been a partner and moonshiner. When the cops finally busted Fred with a big load, they said they were going to break each and every bottle right there on the spot. Fred cheekily asked them to go up the road to break the bottles because he didn’t want them to do it in his front yard. Carlos sums up their relationship with the law with one of his best euphemisms: “If you walk in front of a barking dog, you going to get bit.”
That Carlos uses a family recipe is important — it’s 150 years old, or “however old daddy was,” and is legendary in those parts. Grandpa Lovell was a man with a lot of pride in his process. He hated it when Carlos made cheap stuff when he was a teenager, slapdash ’shine that he’d sell for $18 per case. “You ain’t calling this moonshine,” Carlos said of his current operation. “I’ve made moonshine. My daddy’s recipe — that’s whiskey.”
“My dad loved doing what he did, and he wanted it done right,” said Carlos, stiffening up a bit at the thought of his dad looking on. “Doing it right is making good corn liquor and aging it in barrels. He always said that when you get a barrel full it’s no different than having money in the bank. He believed that too. If you were going to do something, he’d tell you how to do it. There was one way: his way.”
"My dad always said that when you get a barrel full, it’s no different than having money in the bank. He believed that, too."
The operation is very similar to what you would’ve found out in the woods, said Yearwood, the general manager, except that instead of digging down into the ground to keep the still hidden, the Ivy Mountain still is built up on a platform.
If Carlos’s method hasn’t changed much since Grandpa Lovell’s day, the ingredients sure haven’t, either. Many say that the ingredients are the most important element in these types of spirits — much more important than the methods that are used.
Every ingredient in the Lovell Bros. Sour Mash Whiskey comes from right around the distillery, except the barley malt, which doesn’t grow well in Georgia. Much of the corn is bought from the farm of another brother of Carlos, the late RL; the rest comes from local growers in Habersham County. Carlos makes the rounds to his friends’ farms with Fred, picking out the best of the bunch. Then they sprout it, dry it and grind it themselves, with Fred meticulously overseeing the process. The water, an all-important element in any spirit, comes from Annandale Spring, from a property that’s been in the family for years and years, longer than any of them can remember. Their use of local ingredients is unique now, says Yearwood, but back in the moonshining days it wasn’t a bit unusual.
Though the South has long been known for its big bourbon business, it has never been fertile ground for small batch distillers — though it seems poised for a bit of a revival. The Alcohol & Tobacco Bureau listed 14 spirit bottlers and distillers in the state of Georgia in 2014, with Ivy Mountain listed as the third-ever licensed in the state.
Ivy Mountain is well aware of these trends in craft distilling. The 1,000 bottle-a-day space was built to easily house another still, giving it the ability to double in size overnight. They had about 950 barrels aging at last check. “Most people couldn’t afford to have so many barrels just sitting there,” said Yearwood. He says they’re playing the long game, trying to keep the brand integrity up, and not going after offers to sell off too much product.
No, it’s not just about more facilities cranking out more bottles of Southern whiskey. “In Georgia, there’s not the volume [of craft spirits] but the quality is increasing,” said Julian Goglia, Partner/Beverage Director at Pinewood Tippling Room in Decatur and The Mercury in Atlanta. Two years ago if someone asked him to name a good local spirit, he said he’d be hard pressed. But now a few are on the tip of his tongue.
Billing itself as “Georgia’s whiskey,” Ivy Mountain currently produces two spirits under the Lovell Bros. signature label, both of them big, bold and raw. The Lovell Bros. Georgia Sour Mash Spirits is boozy and sweet with lots of corn coming through. The Lovell Bros. Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey is the same recipe, but mellowed a bit from an average of two years spent in charred American oak.
Barkeeps take note: Goglia recommends using Lovell Bros. spirits only when you want that raw flavor to take the stage; there’s no hiding it or masking it. “These spirits aren’t polished up,” he said, calling them young and earthy with a touch of sweet cornbread. “It’s a funky, moonshine-y, put-my-fist-in-the-air flavor.”
Back at the distillery, Carlos tops off everyone’s drinks then heads down to the barrel room — a dim warehouse stuffed to the gills with American oak barrels filled with Sour Mash Whiskey and stamped haphazardly with the Ivy Mountain logo. It’s a nice counterpoint to the almost medical clean of the distillery — and Carlos seems to be more at home among the weathered wood barrels. When asked what his dad would’ve thought if he could see the entire scene, he said, “Oh, he’d like this alright. This’d be right down his alley.”
Currently, you can buy Lovell Bros. spirits at select restaurants and bottle shops around Georgia. Visit the website to find a location.