Jack “Mimm” McClure might be surprised to stumble across a jar full of his secret recipe, out in the open at a bar, looking somewhat “artisanal” for “tastings,” with his name boldly emblazoned on the label.
Times have changed since he was running ridges and dodging the law as the area’s No. 1 bootlegger, but his grandson Tommy Townsend strives for vintage authenticity at Granddaddy Mimm’s Distillery in Blairsville. “The recipe was never written down,” he says, “but my uncle George remembered how to make it.”
McClure was the sort of character who inspires high-lonesome mountain ballads. During the Depression, he loomed larger than life in Towns County, where he ran a beer joint called the Border Hop, selling his corn liquor on the sly, with his imposing size keeping the peace. Gamblers would crank his slot machines until they ran out of money. Miraculously, he never got caught by the feds for his moonshine, because most of the local police were on his side. So were his neighbors. McClure won their good will by using much of his earnings to help feed and clothe the needy children in his hardscrabble community, and he supported the local churches, including the teetotaling Baptists.
“My grandfather was considered a philanthropist,” says Townsend. “If you were out of work, he would see to it that a bag of groceries appeared on your doorstep, and he supplied the school with firewood during the winter. Lots of things like that.”
Gov. Zell Miller considered McClure a friend and memorialized him in print: “Jack McClure was the John Wayne of our section. A bear-like man who weighed 250 pounds, he wore a Stetson hat, and his shirt was always, even in winter, unbuttoned with a mat of reddish-gray hair exposed. He was loved, hated, respected, and feared, depending upon the experience one had with him.”
And, of course, McClure also was esteemed for the consistent quality of his 105-proof product.
He was only two-years-old when McClure died of cancer in 1969, but he grew up steeped in the “Mimm” legend. “I heard a lot of stories about how tough my grandfather was, and at the same time how compassionate he was,” he says.
Townsend had not thought much about following his grand-dad’s example in his professional life. He had other interests. He got his first guitar when he was 13 and immediately felt that calling to be a singer-songwriter. One fateful night, Townsend was hanging out at Lanierland Music Park in Cumming, and he met Waylon Jennings. They sparked to each other.
“After getting to know him and the band a few years later, his bass guitar player took me in the studio and started working with me,” Townsend says. “Waylon was hanging around the studio during that time.”
Jennings realized the young man had promising chops, so he produced Townsend’s first album in 2003. Townsend joined his mentor’s band, Waymore’s Outlaws and relocated to Nashville. Today, he is the lead singer for the group, which keeps up a hectic touring and recording schedule.
While Townsend was on the road, he fell into a conversation about moonshine with some buddies outside of Lubbock, Texas. He thought wistfully of his grandfather, and he began asking his family pointed questions about white lightnin’. Townsend had good timing. Georgia was loosening up its liquor laws, at first allowing tours of distilleries that came with a complimentary bottle of whisky. Then, last year, legislators voted to allow sales of three bottles per person, per day. Townsend moved from Nashville back to the mountains to launch Granddaddy Mimm’s Moonshine Distillery.
The business, located in the campy “Pappy’s Plaza,” boasts two stills that produce up to 62 gallons a day of uncut liquor a day. Don’t let the tourist-friendly trappings fool you -- this moonshine is not the trendy, boutique libation you may have sampled in an Atlanta brewpub – it’s old school and hardcore and sure to warm your belly. All of the ingredients, except the sugar, are Georgia-sourced, and Townsend does not mix in any mass-produced neutral grain spirits, as some distilleries do.
Visitors can get a 20-minute tour that explains the intricacies of the distillation process, and they can enjoy a tasting of five samples for just five dollars. All of the products are based on McClure’s secret recipe developed around 1930, but the eight flavors vary in intensity. There is the original recipe that Townsend tweaked to a lower proof of 100, which is potent enough, but for a truly gullet-scorching experience, try the 140-proof Mule Kickin High Octane label. More retiring palates might prefer the sweeter, 40-proof, fruit flavored ’shine, which goes down like a liqueur.
“I take pride in all of it,” Townsend says. “I want to preserve this heritage.”
The distillery is a family-run operation. Townsend’s sister, Debby Townsend, serves as a manager, and Townsend’s father, Roy, handles the bottling machine. The products can be found in liquor stores across Georgia. “We’re also making inroads into California and Florida,” Tommy Townsend says. “We are growing.”
As luck would have it, Pappy’s Plaza is large enough to accommodate a crowd of 1,000 people, so Townsend occasionally transforms it into a music venue. He will hold a release party for his new album “Turn Back the Clock” at 8 p.m. on June 30. Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s Cain-raising son, will be there, along with anyone else who wants to hoist a jar of fire water. (Expect some clumsy dancing.)
Meanwhile, inside the distillery’s nostalgic museum, along with the ten-gallon Stetson hat Townsend’s granddaddy wore, sits the Victrola gramophone that once entertained tipplers at the Border Hop. As Jack “Mimm” McClure was known to say: “Drink responsibly, and tithe on Sunday.”