Longtime winemaker opens local distillery

New spirits have come alive near the Nippenose Valley with the opening of Mountain Top Distillery.

Shawn Zimmerman long has been a winemaker, but he’s excited about offering his special clear corn whiskey, brandy and a variety of moonshines.

“This is the next trend,” he said, while overseeing the making of corn whiskey in his newly built garage.

Nearby, Doug Johnston, his distiller, was busy at work.

Three stills, or what Zimmerman referred to as “hillbilly stills,” were set up in a garage for his whiskey operation.

Corn, sugar and water, Johnston explained, are the main ingredients to whiskey, and he and Zimmerman think customers will be pleased with their special brands once they get a taste.

“You’ve got to make sure it has good yeast,” he said.

Johnston said he makes about 15 gallons of whiskey on most days.

He puts in about six to eight hours a day.

“I’m usually here at 8 o’clock (in the morning) and out at 2,” he said.

Eventually, he hopes to add a bigger still to the operation.

The two admit some of the corn whiskey being made has some real kick to it – like the old moonshiners used to have.

For example, there’s the Bucked off Shine, which is 150 proof.

Interesting enough, different varieties of the corn whiskey have a certain sweet taste.

And that’s exactly what Johnston said they were looking for.

“It’s a neutral spirit,” he said. “It doesn’t burn back in your throat.”

Zimmerman has run the Bastress Mountain Winery with his wife, Karen, since 2001.

He said that business continues to do well, but he’s happy to try something different now.

The two businesses are adjacent to each other along Route 654, but separate, as required by law.

Zimmerman’s is one of just nine distilleries operating in the state, and the only one in the region.

He said just getting the operation up and running and in compliance with all the state regulations under which distilleries must operate was a challenge.

By law, he cannot sell any spirits that exceed 150 proof.

“I think it’s going to work,” he said of his new operation. “The grain alcohol will sell.”

Some of the moonshines include Honeysuckle, Blueshine, Apple Pie Shine, Peachshine and Lemonshine.

Apple Pie Shine is described as a “blend of ingredients to create a spirit that tastes just like apple pie.”

In fact, Zimmerman said people will buy it for baking purposes.

“There is so much to do with alcohol, it’s amazing,” he said.

Zimmerman said he already is buying some of his ingredients for his operation such as corn from local farmers.

Johnston, for his part, said he’s long been fascinated with making whiskey.

He loves the stories, too, of Prince Farrington, a famous bootlegger from the 1920s who operated an illegal moonshining operation in the area.

Zimmerman’s distillery includes a tasting room where customers can sample some of the spirits.

Since opening about a month ago, business has been decent.

“Right now, we’re just breaking even,” he said.

But he’s hoping it becomes as successful as the winery.

Eventually, he hopes to hand over control of all operations to his son, Toby.

“I think it’s going to work,” he said.