Distillery opens in former Tennessee prison where MLK Jr.’s killer escaped
PETROS, Tenn. (AP) — When the whistle blew, everyone in Petros, Tennessee, knew it was lunchtime at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
To the outside world, it was the place that housed James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin. To locals, it was a job anchor. Caanan Brock had an even deeper tie: “Way before the prison was here, on my mom’s side of the family, they owned this land,” he said.
The mines had already shut down when the state said it was inhumane to house people at Brushy Mountain. It seemed like Petros’ death knell.
“Since the prison closed in ’09 there wasn’t nothing for us in Petros,” said Brock, 28. After high school, he got a job as a chicken farmer.
But Pete Waddington, a Chattanooga bar owner, motorcycled by on the Devil’s Triangle. He looked at the empty building, costing taxpayers $300,000 a year, and saw what it could be. Another Alcatraz, a magnet for tourism. He opened in 2017.
Now Brock works at Brushy Mountain, like his grandfather. Not as a guard. As a master distiller. Which is also connected to his forebears, with one difference: “I’m the first legal moonshiner,” he said.
On a gray morning, the clouds touched the tops of the alcove of trees around the prison. The loudest sound was the rush of a creek.
Wearing a Petros Fire Department hoodie, Brock pointed out where James Earl Ray escaped, over the lowest point of the wall, into Frozen Head State Park. The old prison firetruck stood a few hundred yards away. Until Brock’s family started the volunteer company, it served the whole town.
The still stands in the prison’s old boiler house. It’s stainless steel, not picturesque copper, and spits liquor into a plastic bucket. “Pretty much runs itself,” Brock said. “I got to monitor the steam and water and sit around watching it.” Off-season, usually it’s just him and the stills.
They use spring water from Frozen Head State Park next door and donate money back. Brock’s best friend takes the spent corn mash to feed his cattle.
The plain moonshine, sweet with corn, comes straight from Brock’s still. For the strong, flavored moonshine, they add some purchased neutral spirits, distillery sales manager Matt Loesche said. For their Double Barrel whiskey, they source 6-year-old liquid and age it in Caribbean rum barrels for an additional 6 months.
Waddington masterminds the liquor lines and choices. He hired companies to develop the flavored moonshine recipes. Along with distilling, Brock adds the flavoring and sweetener, and works the bottling line. On heavy days, he calls in help from his mom and sometimes even visitors from the gift shop.
No Tennessee-style whiskey, at least not yet. “We could do a charcoal filter, and we meet all the other requirements anyway,” Waddington said. “We just opted not to do that.” He added, “We’re just trying to put out a quality product with quality ingredients, local water.”
Besides, Waddington is a Maker’s Mark fan. Double Barrel has a very similar mash bill, he said. “If it comes out close, I’ll be happy.”
Despite drawing 65,000 visitors last year, the new Brushy Mountain is a local business like the old. All the penitentiary tour guides live nearby, including some former guards and one former inmate. Brock’s father did some carpentry. His mother leads the paranormal tours.
Indeed, there is some kitsch. Brock’s unflavored moonshine is named Scared Straight. The website’s bottle shop directory says “Hook ‘Em and Book ’Em.”
But it is a stirring experience to walk down the narrow cellblocks with their peeling paint and dank smell, and to look at the nature murals a prisoner painted in the cafeteria. (They reached out to him to touch them up, Loesche said. He refused to return.)
The Brushy Mountain complex is expanding — an RV park, container homes to stay in, a second restaurant, a wastewater treatment plant. The distillery is, too. Six months ago, they put a batch of Brock’s moonshine down to age.
That’s new to Brock, too. He’s seeing how it goes. “Sit and wait a few years,” he said.
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